Informed 365 CEO Nicholas Bernhardt reveals why retailers should care about modern slavery in the fashion industry, as COVID-19 and allegations involving Boohoo amplifies the issue.
Globalisation, fast fashion, economies of scale and offshore production have created a perfect storm for cheap and irresponsible fashion consumption.
There are no signs of it slowing down either: clothing production has nearly doubled in the past 15 years.
A new report from the Walk Free Foundation shows modern slavery is not only rife in today’s society but is actually on the rise – and fashion is one of the key industries implicated in this human rights issue.
For offshore workers, a factory position promises stability and the desire to escape poverty creates a significant power imbalance, where the employee is vulnerable to exploitation.
Most recently on an international level, fast fashion etailer Boohoo faced allegations of exploitation and slavery at one of its suppliers' factories in the United Kingdom.
Reports claim workers at a Leicester factory making clothes could expect to be paid £3.50 an hour and were exposed to poor working conditions, such as no social distancing or appropriate hygiene measures.
But the allegations of modern slavery at Boohoo is a story that has been told time and time again in the fashion industry.
Large brands such as Victoria’s Secret, Nike and The Gap are or have been complicit in the rise of ‘sweatshops’ – notorious for underpaying, overworking and exploiting their employees.
While the issue remains largely invisible and overseas, modern slavery still exists in Australia.
Modern slavery in Australia is defined as serious exploitation in the workplace, such as human trafficking, slavery, servitude and forced labour, amongst others.
Findings from the Global Slavery Index estimate there were approximately 15,000 people living in “conditions of modern slavery” in Australia in 2016.
In 2018, the Australian Government took a hard stance on modern slavery, passing the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth).
The Modern Slavery Act requires companies with over AU$100 million annual consolidated revenue to identify risks and remediate instances of modern slavery in their operations and supply chains.
While the Act is a step in the right direction, experts warn there is a serious risk that coronavirus could lead to a rise in modern slavery and human trafficking.
The International Labour Organization has reported that due to the catastrophic economic downturn, an additional 63.9 million workers across the world with work in poverty as a result of the pandemic.
This is a frightening prospect.
As a retailer or brand, you have the responsibility to strive for transparency across your supply chain and operations.
Visibility and traceability allows you to identify and address risks, tackle inequities head-on and avoid the reputational costs that come with unsociable practices.
While the economic repercussions of the pandemic make it appealing to cut costs – ultimately, it is up to you to maintain supplier relationships and foster opening communication channels around COVID-19.
Ask questions and evaluate the long-term consequences.
To cultivate a sustainable future, it is the collective responsibility of Australian retailers and consumers.
The time of uncertainty has exposed the need for entities – big and small – to take proactive steps to assess and address risks of modern slavery.
We can no longer point fingers at others – we need to move towards positive change.