A CATHOLIC organisation fighting modern slavery and human trafficking has welcomed ground-breaking statements by major Australian supermarkets shining a light on a dark side of fruit and vegetable production.
Woolworths and Coles have released their first review statements under the Modern Slavery Act of 2018.
It requires companies to review their supply chains and check if workers face human trafficking, servitude, forced labour, deceptive recruiting or other poor conditions.
Woolworths’ review of its supply chains uncovered 332 Australian fruit and vegetable suppliers where workers were at risk of slave-like conditions.
Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans (ACRATH) national executive officer Christine Carolan said she wasn’t surprised by the statements but was pleased about the honest reporting of risks of slave-like conditions.
“We, in ACRATH, really fought hard to get that Modern Slavery Act reporting requirement to happen in 2018, and so we’re really pleased to see that it’s starting to kick in with some honest reporting,” Ms Carolin said.
“We’re concerned about some of the bad practice on (some) Australian farms so we’re delighted that Woolworths have named it in a Modern Slavery Act statement.
“That was the aim of the statements – to identify possible forced labour and slavery-like practices, and once it was named, to work out what do we do about it.”
Ms Carolin said there was a sense among some growers and some labour-hire companies that when people came from overseas to work on temporary visas they were not entitled to Australian working conditions.
“And that’s wrong; every person working in Australia has a right to work under the Fair Work Act,” she said.
The Modern Slavery Act requires that companies’ review statements are registered and they can be accessed on a website.
Ms Carolan said that would provide the necessary scrutiny.
She was pleased ABC News reported on the first reviews and the statements, “because it’s saying to everybody that ‘everybody with bad practices is now on notice’, and that’s terrific because we don’t want just statements – Modern Slavery statements – and it’s good that they’ve named it but we actually want to stop slavery”.
“ACRATH is working with a group of 22 men from Vanuatu to get their back wages and all the money that an exploiter stole from them, and so we know that bad things have happened but we want to make sure that companies now look for that bad practice, name it and then address it,” she said.
Under the Modern Slavery Act, every company with annual revenue of more than $100 million are required to produce Modern Slavery statements.
Ms Carolan said that included explaining what they intended to do to mitigate the risks of slavery-like conditions.
“We think consumers should be looking at those statements … and asking, next time they go to Woolworths or Coles, ‘We heard in the media this is an issue, can you tell us what you’re doing about it?’,” she said.
“That sort of consumer pressure is amazingly effective, and we found that as a network when we did a similar sort of thing with slavery-free chocolate.
“We took it to some of the big companies and initially they just went, ‘Oh no, no, this is not for us …’ but when they realised that we had 5000 consumers willing to send them a postcard to that effect suddenly we had five of the big chocolate companies actually then started sourcing slavery-free cocoa for their chocolate.
“So consumers are powerful.”
Ms Carolan said as Christians “we’re all called to look out for the rights of the disempowered”.
ABC News recently reported that Woolworths had reviewed its direct suppliers and the suppliers that supplied to them, known as indirect suppliers.
The 332 “at-risk” sites mentioned in the Woolworths statement included some that had not completed their risk profile or still had not met Woolworths’ requirements.
A spokesperson for Woolworths said “we’re committed to identifying and resolving modern slavery risks in our supply chains and will always do the right thing in the interest of workers when potential issues are identified”.
A Coles spokesperson said the company “opposes slavery and worker exploitation in all forms” and understood suppliers often required significant numbers of temporary workers during the harvest period.
“We require suppliers to ensure that labour-hire providers meet all legal and ethical obligations, including being licensed where this is a requirement,” the spokesperson said.
Coles’ Modern Slavery statement noted some farms at the start of the supply chain were not covered by their ethical sourcing program.
The company’s spokesperson said Coles would “expand and improve” it.