Special Feature on Modern Slavery – The Modern Slavery Research Cluster at the University of Western Australia

Symposium opened by keynote Justine Nolan Source: Twitter @DrMelOB

Modern slavery is an umbrella term used to describe a number of crimes, including, but not limited to, human trafficking, forced labour, sexual slavery, child labour and trafficking, domestic servitude, forced marriage, bonded labour including debt bondage, slavery and other slavery-like practices’ (Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia, 2017)  Modern slavery is a crime that can cross borders, sectors and jurisdictions.  According to the International Labor Organization (‘ILO’)  and the Walk Free Foundation, there are over 40 million people in modern slavery around the world – 25 million people in forced labor and 15 million people in forced marriage. 71 per cent of those in modern slavery are women and girls and 25 per cent are children.

I recently spoke with Associate Professor Dave Webb from the University of Western Australia(UWA), the co-convenor with Dr Fiona McGaughey (UWA Law School) of the UWA Modern Slavery Research Cluster (MSRC). As a former Police Officer with a working interest in the offence of human trafficking, he combined his understanding of the workings of business and came to view modern slavery, in crude terms, as a “form of business”. This led him to realise that academics and businesspeople alike could make a positive difference in the fight against modern slavery. I spoke with him about what Modern Slavery is, why business schools should take note, how the University of Western Australia is engaged in the topic as well as their collaboration with the University of Leedsin the United Kingdom.

Why is Modern Slavery important?

Aside from the obvious overt criminal side of modern slavery that impacts on individual human rights, freedom and by implication individual wellbeing, for business, modern slavery is important for a variety of reasons. First, the presence of modern slavery serves to further erode an already low level of consumer trust placed in global business, and this due to a history of involvement in numerous ethical, environmental and human rights breaches. Second, economies where modern slavery is rife can be said to be operating on the false and strategically limiting foundation of among others, inappropriate supply chain operations, procurement practices, production costs, product pricing, and arguably trained consumer demands.  Beyond these, from an economic perspective, where slavery exists, the positive development of global, regional and national growth, progress, and wellbeing is also hindered. Accordingly, for these and many other reasons, it is important that business likewise plays its role in mitigating against the presence of modern slavery from within its halls and corridors. Some industries present a particular modern slavery risk, including the resources, manufacturing and fisheries sectors, which are of significant relevance to many regions (Walk Free Foundation, 2018).

How is the University of Western Australia currently engaged in the topic?

After being involved in a series of projects mainly to do with human trafficking in Latin America, South East Asia and Europe, together with my colleague Dr Fiona McGaughey, I formed an informal Modern Slavery Research Network in 2017. This included researchers from the Schools of Business, Law, Social Sciences, History, the Oceans Institute and elsewhere in the University. In April 2019 the network was formalised as the UWA Modern Slavery Research Cluster (MSRC)and together with UWA Business School’s UN PRME Director Dr Donella Caspersz, now includes a core group of people from the Business and Law Schools.  Since then we have been very busy. For example, we hosted our inaugural symposium on Perspectives on Modern Slavery in September 2019 which was well attended by both academics and non-academics from Australia and also overseas. Every few months, and in conjunction with our partners at the University of Leeds Business School, we host Zoom Webinars with guest speakers who present on the topic of modern slavery. We also converse on modern slavery with a range of international organisations including the French-Australian Chamber of Commerce, Australian Border Force,the Salvation Army and Walk free Foundation. And of course, we regularly communicate with others around the University on topics relevant to modern slavery.

You work in collaboration with other PRME schools. How did that partnership develop and what are you working on?

Early discussion as part of an informal Global PRME Partnership with the University of LeedsBusiness School (LUBS) in the United Kingdom, revealed a common interest in the area of modern slavery. At the current time two key projects are in progress with researchers from both schools. The first explores the role of SME’s in respect to the introduction of the Modern Slavery Acts both in the UK(2015) and Australia (2018) which introduces statutory reporting requirements for businesses of a certain turnover threshold (UKL36 million and AUD100 million respectively). While it is still too early to say much about the Australian situation, in the UK it was found that only 19% of the 6102 companies that supplied statements met the minimum requirements (Selveratnam 2018). The low level of compliance is said to be due to the complexity and length of supply chains, insufficient monitoring resources, and, most notably, a lack of leverage with suppliers to make them improve practices that have contributed to a lack of compliance. We are looking at how SMEs perceive the legislation and, what they perceive their responsibilities to be in the chain of compliance.

The second project is a comparative study that explores how a number of key industry sectors, organisations in the UK, France and Australia are engaging with modern slavery legislation.  A notable recent trend has been the introduction of legislation requiring businesses to report on steps to tackle modern slavery in their businesses and supply chains.  Beyond that however, a range of diverse legislative mechanisms have been used – some laws cover broader human rights and environmental or other issues, others require due diligence, some simply require the publication of a report with no penalties for non-compliance. This study sets the context; maps the relevant international law, summarises the recent municipal laws that have been introduced, and examines the features of these laws.

What is needed in this area in order to move forward?

Project 1 reveals that there is a need to raise the level of awareness and understanding of SME’s in both the UK and Australia about their role in respect to modern slavery. Such education can come not only from academia broadly, but also from within organisations and for that matter supply chains. In other words, there is much more room for proactivity from the SME sector. Many potential research opportunities exist in the area of Modern Slavery including the implications for at-risk workers, industries and regions, economic and public policy implications of modern slavery, risks for business and supply chains to name but a few.

How do you/would you include Modern Slavery in the curriculum?

Given the multidisciplinary nature of modern slavery, modern slavery can be included as an important aspect of studies in Business, IT, Law, Geography, Philosophy, other social sciences, Maritime studies and so on. In fact, it is difficult to imagine an area that isn’t touched in some way by modern slavery. Topics of coverage could include modern slavery and supply chain management and logistics, economics, management, strategy, consumers and marketing, IT and social media, psychology, wellbeing, ethics, HRM, organization design, public policy, business law, criminal law, human rights law and fisheries to name a few.

Universities committed to UN PRME and/or UNGC can directly include coverage of modern slavery as a response to SDG 8 ‘Good Jobs and Economic Growth’ and specifically targets 8.5, 8.7 and 8.8. This would include investigating and preparing a statement as required by legislation in our country but also to ensure that the leaders of tomorrow become enlightened on issues to do with modern slavery at some stage of their learning journey.

Indeed, in Australia, organizations, which includes Universities, with a turnover greater than AUD$100 million are obliged according to the Modern Slavery Act 2018 to issue a statement highlighting actions mitigating against the presence of modern slavery in their supply chains. Accordingly, the more overt and the greater the commitment to modern slavery in research and teaching terms, the more opaque a University’s commitment.

What’s next?

We are continuing our partnership with LUBS. Throughout 2020 UWA staff including myself and Dr McGaughey will independently be visiting LUBS. In turn, LUBS staff will be visiting UWA. For example, Professor Hinrich Voss (LUBS) has been awarded a UWA Alcoa and Mine Visiting Professor grant to visit Perth in September.

To expand our coverage, we are also currently developing other studies including one exploring consumer issues and modern slavery another business ethics and modern slavery to commence in 2020.

We have also been exploring ways that we can look at the joint supervision and exchange of HDR students between our respective institutions. We see this not only as a very important aspect of our partnership, but also of our combined efforts to prepare future decision-makers who will in turn be able to impact positively in the ongoing challenge to tackle modern slavery in all its ugly forms. Though again only in its early stages, the idea of a dedicated postgraduate degree of some description has been discussed as well.

What advice do you have for schools?

Without a doubt, modern slavery presents itself as one of the most pressing challenges facing decision-makers across all public and private organization-types both today and tomorrow. There is a critical need therefore for decision-makers across all sectors to be much better versed than they currently appear to be about the nature of modern slavery, what supports its’ presence and continuity and the identity of appropriate response options.

My advice in terms of developing partnerships is that the benefits accrued from legitimate partnerships far outweigh the costs involved in their initiation and management. Of course, they, like all relationships, need ongoing maintenance, management and commitment from all sides. And finally,start with small steps, slowly and surely with planning, and work out from there.

For further information or to explore collaborative opportunities, interested members are invited to contact: Dave Webb (dave.webb@uwa.edu.au), Fiona McGaughey (fiona.mcgaughey@uwa.edu.au) or UWA’s UN PRME Director Donella Caspersz (donella.caspersz@uwa.edu.au).


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