Modern slavery is on the rise in Asia, but new laws show consumer pressure is working

February 6, 2019

Photo by Erwan Hesry on Unsplash.

I’m sitting at my desk readying an annual review of the state of ‘business and human rights’ in Asia. The task is a worthy one, but also a rude interruption to the warm and fuzzy feeling I’ve been enjoying after a holiday spent in Western Australia. There, amid white sand beaches, clear blue skies, and the towering eucalyptus, I met distant relatives for the first time; these were my second cousins whose ancestors migrated to Australia from England as mine made a new life in the US.

At a Christmas lunch, hosted by my second cousins, I naturally had a chance to talk about my work on Business and human rights issues. I spoke of our efforts to address or draw attention to forced-labour, displacement, environmental degradation, and physical attacks on human rights defenders.

“We have such a blessed life here in Perth, I’m afraid we don’t think about these things very often,” one cousin admitted.

In fact, awareness among Australians of the scale and scope of human rights abuses in business operations in Asia has risen considerably in recent years. Only weeks before our visit, the Australian Parliament passed the Modern Slavery Act (MSA) 2018. Australia is among a handful of countries to introduce this type of legislation. The Australian MSA signals a new willingness to bring transparency to the global supply chains of Australian businesses, many of which source from Asia.

As I’ve written in a previous blogpost, modern slavery does not have an internationally recognized definition. However, it is generally accepted that modern slavery and forced labor applies to situations in which persons are coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as manipulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of deportation.

In 2018, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation estimated that 24.9 million people worldwide were being held captive as forced laborers, half of them in the Asia-Pacific region. These estimates show a marked increase from previous years.

In 2015, journalists from the Associated Press (AP) documented horrifying accounts of modern slavery in Southeast Asia and carefully chronicled the extent to which forced labor was embedded in the supply chains of major food retailers based in the United States.

The AP report inspired consumer boycotts, official investigations and a flurry of legislative and policy responses. Also in 2015, the UK Modern Slavery Act was passed, but only after weeks and months of acrimonious debate. At issue, the UK Modern Slavery Act only encouraged large companies to report on the human rights risks in their supply chains and on any measures to mitigate those risks. Financial or criminal penalties were not included as provisions for failing to do so.

According to many observers, the Modern Slavery Act in the UK, the Corporate Duty of Vigilance Law in France (2017), the EU Directive on Non-Financial Disclosures (2013), and the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act (2012), among others, have intensified the discussion on business and human rights amongst consumers, investors, and companies. These laws may have empowered whistleblowers and advocates within firms to get senior management to take action to remedy human rights impacts or revise or develop due diligence practices. Certainly, the MSA and other legislative actions will strengthen policy efforts now underway in Asia.

In 2017, Thailand announced its intention to develop a national action plan (NAP) on business and human rights to consolidate a whole-of-government response to modern slavery and other abuses in supply chains.

In 2018, it strengthened its efforts by inviting UN experts to engage on human rights conditions in business operations in Thailand. The Thai government also indicated that the National Action Plan would be aligned with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (2011) and reviewed by UN-endorsed experts.

Meanwhile, Malaysia, India and Indonesia have also formally announced their intentions to start developing national action plans. In 2018, Thailand voted to ratify the ILO Convention on Work in Fishing (No. 188), the first Asian country to do so.

I recently asked Vanessa Zimmerman, Board Member and Chair of Human Rights, Global Compact Network Australia (GCNA), for her views on the MSA. The GCNA runs a community of practice for Australian companies to share best practice and challenges relating to the MSA and broader modern slavery risk management.

She said she understood why there was scepticism in some quarters but noted that the MSA has, “already encouraged Australian companies that were once absent from the business and human rights arena to start engaging. They now have a better understanding of how their businesses may be involved in modern slavery and broader human rights impacts.”

Certainly, legislative and policy action coming from countries at both ends of global supply chains is promising. Pressure from multilateral organizations will also be helpful. Behind these initiatives is a growing appreciation that business has a powerful role in bettering society, and a recognition that governments alone cannot address global challenges fast enough.


What are your views on how the world can combat Modern Slavery, and ensure responsible consumption? Let us know.