One of Australia’s best-known business figures says he uncovered slavery in at least 12 suppliers as he tried to stamp out forced labour from the business chain of his mining company.
Speaking at a forum in Sydney, Andrew Forrest said he told suppliers to his Fortescue Metals Group that they had to own up to using forced labour or they would be “barbecued”.
The process flushed out “at least 12 suppliers” who admitted they had “real issues”. He visited one of those suppliers in the Middle East, and discovered scores of foreign workers in shocking conditions.
“[They had] a life expectancy of five years and food which just kept them alive … 18 to a room which you wouldn’t call your larder … and not able to leave,” he said.
“That company ladies and gentlemen was supplying goods to us and to companies all over ... Australia.
“We all had slavery in our supply chains.”
At the forum, convened by the Global Compact Network Australia (GCNA), Australia’s government, business and not-for-profit bodies met to discuss potential changes to the law to tackle the problem.
A parliamentary inquiry will examine whether legal changes could provide greater protection for workers from human trafficking, forced labour and debt bondage.
Legislation was recently introduced in the UK that requires large companies to provide annual reports that set out the steps they have taken to ensure no slavery is taking place in their supply chains.
Forrest, who founded and now chairs the iron ore miner Fortescue, has been a vocal proponent of greater scrutiny over Australia’s supply chains to eliminate slavery. He has called for the introduction of an act similar to the UK model, that would increase transparency over supply chains through the Asia-Pacific.
Forrest discussed his frustrations with knowing that he had slavery in his supply chain, which had over 3,500 suppliers. He said that while he could have undertaken a systematic audit of each of them, he took another route to try and weed it out.
“I knew that I had slavery in my supply chains I just couldn’t prove it. So I just pressed a button,” he said.
The “button” Forrest pressed was an affidavit he required suppliers to sign, forcing them to disclose whether slavery existed in their work practices.
The message he wanted to send to suppliers, he told the panel, was: “If you’ve got any transgressions report it to us. We’ll work with you to get it out, no penalty. But if you don’t report it. Barbecued.
“Not only will you be cut from our supply chain, we’ll make sure you’re cut from everyone we speak to.”
Sharan Burrow , the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, said she supported the introduction of legislation, but said it needed to be appropriately crafted, and should be supported by ratifying international law principles around slavery.
“This government needs to ratify the forced labor protocol. That sets the basis for the legislation,” she said.
She encouraged the adoption of measures that imposed strong due diligence requirements on companies to ensure their supply chains did not contain slavery.
“Is it so hard to ask for transparency? Is it so hard to ask for businesses to take responsibility across borders?”
She said the UK bill wasn’t necessarily the best model, because of deficiencies in transparency requirements, how it applied to jurisdictions overseas and the limited nature of the civil penalties.
The Australian ambassador for people smuggling and human trafficking, Andrew Goledzinowski, said the Australian government had not yet decided how to respond to the UK model. But he said the government was strongly committed to eliminating slavery from Australia’s supply chains.
He said the government was focusing on drawing together various United Nations priorities to push for a global strategy.
“Australia is now leading a push with the UK to bring together coherence in the UN system.
“Then we can start talking about having a global strategy.”
Australia’s parliamentary inquiry is accepting submissions until May.