Forrest tackles slavery, global companies listen

Article in the Australian Financial Review by Jennifer Hewett.

Andrew Forrest never thinks small. His ability to create Fortescue Metals out of red dirt and passion in less than a decade is an international mining legend. His decision to challenge the fiasco of the mining tax in the High Court – the case started Wednesday – reflects a man who won’t concede defeat. His attempt to get more private sector jobs for Aborigines via his GenerationOne project is well known.

Yet his latest campaign is far larger in scope and ambition. The notion of ending modern slavery is not only beyond most people’s imaginings. It is considered absurdly impossible to achieve, quixotic to even attempt. Other corporate leaders are for the moment more likely to roll their eyes at this latest Forrest dream. Get real.

But don’t bother suggesting the problems to Forrest. More and more, the Fortescue chairman focuses his energy on philanthropy rather than success in business. And he brings exactly the same determination to make the impossible happen.

The Forrest family’s various charitable ventures are now housed together on the banks of the Swan River in historic refurbished buildings that he rescued from demolition. From there, he plans his next move in what is already an international campaign called Walk Free.

The general idea is to get businesses to pledge not to use any forced or slave labour in their global supply chains – and to investigate all their suppliers and supply contracts to ensure that this is true. FMG has already done this, of course, and Forrest says that two Fortescue suppliers couldn’t immediately sign such a declaration. The company is now working with both to ensure changes occur, given the companies clearly don’t want to lose the FMG business.

This fits Forrest’s belief that commercial imperatives will prove a quicker and more effective way to get change than relying only on governments.

So far Forrest’s good mate, Richard Branson, has signed up Virgin to the pledge. Forrest has spoken to another good mate, Bill Gates, who is also concentrating on using his massive personal wealth for philanthropy.

The result is that Microsoft is in active discussions on the issue – as is Vodafone. Google’s not-for-profit arm is working on improving national hotlines to call to report cases of slavery.

Walk Free will also launch a country index later this year rating countries according to the prevalence of slavery and their willingness to do something about it.

All this effort is due to a school visit to a Nepalese orphanage by one of the Forrest daughters. When the family returned a year later and found none of the children still there, it was obvious what was really going on in the orphanage. It’s no longer operating. Forrest just smiles when asked what he had to do with the closure.

No doubt Wayne Swan will convince himself this is all just another terrible billionaire plot to somehow avoid tax. But Forrest hasn’t given up on persuading the federal government or the opposition that Australia can make a difference in this latest moral crusade. (Just don’t mention climate change in this context in Canberra.)

At the last press gallery ball, for example, Forrest outbid the rest for the pleasure of a dinner with Prime Minister Julia Gillard and another with the Leader of the Opposition. He went to the Lodge last month, taking along two “survivors of modern slavery” in Australia. Forrest has a similar evening planned with Tony Abbott on March 20.

His companions are to make the point that forced labour is not just a problem in the developing world.

Think, for example, of the occasional stories in Australia of young Asian women forced into prostitution or “work” rackets where their passports are confiscated and the cost of airfare, rent and food deducted from the bill indefinitely.

Forrest’s major argument, though, is that more than 20 million people are victims of modern slavery – including human trafficking, forced labour and child soldiers – and that around half of those are believed to be in the Asia-Pacific region.

He wants the Australian government to take a role elevating the issue – in Australia and via its new position on the United Nations Security Council.

But he also wants a commitment to change Australian government procurement guidelines to avoid inadvertent sourcing of slave-produced goods or services.

That would mean suppliers and contractors providing guarantees that none of their goods or services have relied on forced labour or human trafficking. It is closely modelled on a “zero tolerance” executive order on US federal contracts signed by President Barack Obama last September.

Forrest argues that reluctant Australian companies will then be more likely to follow an Australian government lead. The Prime Minister’s office says a recent letter from Forrest is under consideration. Despite the lack of interest or disbelief of many of his peers, Forrest will never let it go.

He only knows one gear: full speed ahead. Cynics beware. That includes you, Wayne.


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