Combatting global labour abuses begins at home

Combatting global labour abuses begins at home

This piece was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

If you are reading this on your computer, phone or tablet, chances are it was made in China by a worker like 18-year-old Xiao Ya.

Xiao left her home town in rural China to find work to help support her ageing parents. She got a job cleaning tablet screens in Guangzhou, in one of the big factories which produce 90 per cent of the world's electronics.

She worked 15-hour days, seven days a week. After several weeks, she started to feel numb and weak. Then her legs stopped working properly.

It was only after she was hospitalised with partial paralysis that Xiao discovered she had been poisoned by n-Hexane, a solvent used to clean tablet and phone screens because it evaporates quickly. It also causes severe damage to the central nervous system. N-hexane is officially banned in China, but is nonetheless widely used because it is significantly cheaper than safer alternatives.

Xiao's story forces us to confront the human cost of the conveniences we enjoy daily. Her plight and that of thousands of Chinese workers like her are the subject of the documentary, Complicit, which has its Australian premiere this week. The film interviews a string of young workers, mainly women in their teens and 20s, who describe the grim working conditions they endure to support their families, despite dire consequences for their health.

Complicit also raises a more important question: what can we do about it?

The increasingly complex, globalised nature of product supply chains has created "black holes" in oversight and regulation where serious labour abuses are rife.

Even in Australia, as recent investigations into our fruit-picking and meat industries have revealed, slave labour and other abuses thrive.

The Australian government is conducting an inquiry on whether Australia should adopt a modern slavery act. An important part of the inquiry's work is to consider how we can better regulate our overseas and domestic supply chains to do our part in combating the worst of these kind of abuses.

There is no general requirement for Australian companies sourcing from overseas to look into where their goods are sourced from, let alone the conditions people are working in. Some responsible companies have initiated their own processes, but with no uniformity, those trying to do the right thing risk being undercut by those who turn a blind eye.

It's clear we need a better system to encourage – and where necessary compel – those in power to lift their game in stamping out abuses.

Similar laws already adopted in Britain, the US and Europe suggest any effective model to combat supply chain abuses must contain three key elements – knowledge, transparency and accountability.

Companies must firstly be required to "know" their supply chains beyond just their immediate suppliers. While investigating complex supply chains can be challenging, it is the big retailers in places like Australia who can exert the greatest influence over their suppliers. The knowledge requirement should extend beyond just "forced labour" – otherwise grave abuses like those suffered by Xiao Ya may not be picked up – and higher standards should apply for companies operating in regions and industries where there is a particular risk of abuse.

Transparency is equally important, linking knowledge with accountability. As has been done in Britain, Australia should impose an obligation for companies to publicly report on the steps they have taken to investigate and eradicate abuses. This information should be publicly available and centrally collected by a single government agency so that compliance can be readily monitored – a gap in the British model.

Finally, there should be no excuses for companies that are found to be associated with abuse. While the emphasis should be on assisting companies to clean up their supply chains, when companies repeatedly fail to investigate or are shown to have been involved in actively profiting from abuses, they should be penalised. Otherwise, there is a risk that the new laws may become simply another "tick-box" exercise rather than a real catalyst for change.

Australia has already introduced a strong regulatory model of this kind to stamp out illegal logging in timber supply chains. Australian importers and processors of timber are required to investigate the source of the timber they are buying, identify and assess the risk of illegal logging against set criteria and mitigate those risks by requesting further information from suppliers. A failure to comply with these steps incurs fines or, in certain cases, even jail time.

The government should adopt a similarly rigorous approach to combating serious labour rights abuses in company supply chains. As stories like that of Xiao Ya show, lives depend on it.

Keren Adams is Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre.