Shining a light on the dark side of the supply chain

According to the global slavery index, 45 million people across the world are victims of exploitative practices. As a result of our global sourcing practices, and the extended supply chains of our organisations, Australian consumers may be unwittingly supporting modern slavery through their purchasing.

Dr. Vikram Bhakoo

Dr. Vikram Bhakoo, an Associate Professor in the Department of Management and Marketing, believes having a transparent supply chain is fundamental to reducing modern slavery. A number of Australian firms are making progress in developing an ethical sourcing framework, however, to truly eliminate slavery from Australian supply chains it is essential to map the supply chain from end-to-end.

“Modern slavery is where you have breach of employment conditions, people are working far more than what they're required to be working, based on the laws of their country” explains Dr Bhakaoo.

They are paid less than the minimum wage. You might have child labour, debt bondage, migrant labor and inhospitable working conditions. In these situations, the workers are extremely vulnerable to the employer.

Modern slavery is one of most complex challenges facing businesses. Bhakoo was granted some insight into these complexities during his supply chain sustainability study of three diverse industries. Each business was looking to capitalise on the demand for environmentally friendly and ethically produced products by highlighting their sustainability credentials. The results found that while the company passed the mandate to all their suppliers to become compliant to certain regulations, it was challenging to verify compliance as you go further upstream in the supply chain.

The current business climate has created a global supply chain that is highly fragmented and geographically dispersed. The end-to-end supply chain, and where all the elements of the supply chain are coming from, is largely invisible. Traditionally businesses have conducted planned audits. This does not always provide a full and accurate picture of the supply chain, as once the audit cycle has passed ongoing compliance is not monitored.

Vikram’s current research with Kate Nicholl, is exploring these issues within the seafood supply chain. They are mapping the seafood supply chain from the retailers within Australia, looking at the exporters and the canneries in places like Thailand, all the way through to the fishing boats. They have noted NGO involvement and legislation, are driving change within supply chains. The advocacy of NGOs is central in bringing the plight of workers to the public. With social media’s ability to disperse information to consumers across the globe, brands are scrutinizing their supply chain structure to ensure their reputation is protected.

NGO advocacy has lead a number of countries to strengthen their responses to modern slavery with new regulations to provide legal protection for those at risk, and significant consequences for noncompliance.

The Australian government is in the process of establishing a Modern Slavery Act. Vikram was invited to present to a Senate inquiry. His submission calls on Australian firms to prioritise mapping the end-to-end supply chain to increase transparency and eliminate the risk of human rights abuses in their extended supply chain.

Dr Bhakoo is continuing his research into problems that surface at different tiers of the supply chain and how we can develop a more transparent supply chain that will mitigate both the environmental and social sustainability impacts on the environment.