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Parliamentary Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade - 12/03/2013 - Slavery, slavery-like conditions and people trafficking

DAVID, Ms Fiona, Executive Director Global Research, Walk Free

GRONO, Mr Nick, Chief Executive Officer, Walk Free

Subcommittee met at 13:10

CHAIR ( Mr Laurie Ferguson ): I declare open this public hearing of the inquiry into slavery, slavery-like conditions and people trafficking, which is being conducted by the Human Rights Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. This is the fourth public hearing held by the committee for this inquiry. The committee has received evidence that businesses and governments are playing an increasingly important role in addressing modern-day slavery in product supply chains. In 2012, nine global companies joined together to establish the Global Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking. Federal and state governments in the United States are also actively addressing this issue. The federal Department of Labor periodically publishes a list of goods produced by child labour or forced labour, and the state of California recently passed the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act.

As part of this inquiry, the subcommittee will examine best practice approaches by governments and businesses to addressing modern slavery in product supply chains. The subcommittee will also examine Australia's efforts to address all forms of slavery, slavery-like conditions and people trafficking, look at ways to encourage effective international action and investigate international best practice. The subcommittee will also focus on how to prosecute offenders and how to protect and support the victims. Today we will hear from Walk Free.

I now welcome representatives of Walk Free to today's hearing. I remind witnesses that although the subcommittee does not require you to give evidence under oath, this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the chambers themselves. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and will attract parliamentary privilege. Do you wish to make an opening statement to the committee?

Mr Grono : I would like to make a very brief opening statement. First of all, I thank the committee for the opportunity to appear before it. Walk Free is a new organisation, established by Andrew and Nicola Forrest last year. I have been CEO for four months and Fiona David has been with the organisation for just on a year. Our mission is global: we are focused on eliminating slavery around the world, and so in our comments today—or in my opening statement—I just want to focus on Australia's global role and particularly the role that it can play in fighting slavery around the world. We welcome the initiative of the government, announced on Friday by the Prime Minister, of efforts to seek to eliminate modern slavery in Australia and overseas. We think that is a very welcome development and it positions Australia well to lead this effort internationally.

Specifically, there are three things that I would propose that the government may want to consider to build on that initiative: one is transparency in supply chain legislation. As you mentioned there is transparency in supply chain legislation in California already; there is a bill before the UK parliament and the basic thrust of the legislation is to encourage companies to publish their efforts to establish whether or not there are forced labour slavery issues within their supply chains—and that is for companies over a certain size. In California, it is over $100 million and the UK legislation is talking of a similar figure.

Given Australia's role on the UN Security Council over the next couple of years, it is also well placed to play a role in that forum. There are very strong linkages between certain types of slavery and conflict, and so one option would be to call for a UN Security Council session on conflict and modern slavery and look at those linkages and ways in which they can be addressed. Another option would be to call for the appointment of a UN special representative of the Secretary-General on modern slavery and conflict. We believe that those would be very useful initiatives in advancing the fight internationally.

Finally, Australia has an excellent aid program in our region. The Asia-Pacific region is where you find a majority of the world's slavery globally, and we would encourage the government to build on the excellent work that AusAID is doing in the region and make more of an effort to mainstream slavery considerations in its aid programs when it is putting out requests for projects and ask whether there are considerations that can be taken into account that would help address slavery. Those are three brief suggestions, but I am very happy to elaborate on the submission or any questions you may have.

Mr RUDDOCK: I have some questions on your organisation. Is there an international body called Walk Free? You referred to the Walk Free social movement, index of modern slavery and the global fund, so is there an international body that you are affiliated with?

Mr Grono : No, Walk Free is an Australian organisation with a strategy to set up a global movement, publish a global slavery index and work to establish a global fund.

Mr RUDDOCK: I must say that in reading the paper I did not understand the Forrest linkages, but I see some complimentary remarks about Fortescue in the paper.

Mr DANBY: Can you explain what that means?

Mr RUDDOCK: I saw some complimentary remarks about the Fortescue Metals Group. I was told that the Forrest family, Andrew and his wife, were behind the establishment of this organisation, so I assume they represent the Australian Children's Trust and Hope for Children Foundation. I should have known.

Mr Grono : The Prime Minister, very kindly, acknowledged the role of Andrew and Nicola Forrest in introducing her to this issue on Friday.

Mr RUDDOCK: What prompted them to take up this interest? I have been asking questions all the way through this. What is the size, scope and nature of the problems we are dealing with, and are they problems we have to deal with domestically? I try to pin it down to understand it. If you came along and just said to me, de novo, 'Slavery is something dreadful,' I would say, 'I agree entirely,' but if nobody is enslaved, why do you bother doing anything about it? There is this degree of interest, but does it reflect an informed and evidence based judgement and, if it does, what is the nature of that evidence based judgement?

Mr Grono : To your first question about what motivated the engagement of Andrew and Nicola Forrest: their eldest daughter was working in an orphanage one summer in Nepal and then Andrew, I understand, went back with her a year later and it appeared that a number of the children from that orphanage had been trafficked. So the Forrests got involved in supporting orphanages in Nepal and then he, looking into the issue more broadly, came to understand that internationally, particularly in South Asia, there is a very significant slavery problem. That was what motivated him and his wife to set up Walk Free.

In terms of the scale of the problem, we are very much focused outside of Australia. With limited resources, if one wants to have the greatest impact on slavery then, I think, one can achieve the most by focusing on places like India that does have millions of people in situations of bonded labour. The figure that is most commonly used for the international scale of the problem is a study put out by the International Labour Organization last year that estimated that about 20.9 million people were in a situation of forced labour. Forced labour—the committee would understand this if it had been given testimony—in places like India, and I am speaking of India because I was there in January, is whole communities and villages being forced to work in stone quarries or on brick kilns, or children being forced to work weaving carpets. It is that kind of issue that falls within the definition of forced labour, and, we say, falls within the broad definition of modern slavery. I know you have been very interested in figures in Australia, but we have not done any research on that, so I would not purport to be able to address those specific issues.

CHAIR: I have just one point about the 265,000 people. Have you done any survey of who they are? Are they individuals, companies or groups? Have you done much on that?

Mr Grono : 265,000?

CHAIR: I thought I saw a figure of 265,000 people in a network.

Mr RUDDOCK: Yes, it is on page 12 the Walk Free submission—or it is numbered 12. It is under the heading 'Walk Free Social Movement'.

Mr Grono : That is the size of our movement—

Mr RUDDOCK: Online communities.

Mr Grono : One strategy that we have is to raise awareness globally, mainly through online campaigning: encouraging people to sign up through Facebook and through email. Currently our numbers are about 1.2 million supporters quarterly read; that is people who have signed up to Walk Free.

CHAIR: Can you give us some idea of the dimension of what you have done in regard to use of that mechanism?

Mr Grono : The objective with the movement is to raise awareness and to run specific campaigns. For instance, right now we are running a campaign about a child labour bill before the Indian parliament. We are encouraging people to call on the Indian government to pass the child labour bill. There are campaigns that we have run about companies that may be sourcing materials—either cotton products from Uzbekistan, and raw cotton produced in Uzbekistan every harvest season, or conflict minerals. We call on people to ask them to sign up to processes that will ensure that they can have clean supply chains.

CHAIR: What do you see as the level of impact? How many people are you getting as a response? Do you know any figures?

Mr Grono : We are currently at 1.2 million and that is growing at about 100,000 a fortnight on Facebook. So it is pretty broad engagement. Much of that is in developed countries, but we are looking to expand our efforts and partner with organisations in places like India and Brazil—where the real problem is—to get engaged communities there to run campaigns of interest, like the child labour bill and other initiatives like that.

Mr DANBY: Recently, Mauritania was elevated to some role in the United Nations. I think this only happened after Mr Ferguson left the United Nations. Knowing your strong views on this issue, he would probably have stopped it. Of all the countries in the world, there may be countries where there are more people who are involved in slavery. I agree with your focus on India because, while it is not officially slavery, it is slave-like conditions. Mauritania is the most egregious country where slavery is officially tolerated. It is occasionally abolished there but then it seems to come back and people are openly traded as slaves. It does seem to be very racially based where African people are traded in the most primitive way—excesses of the past. You would not think that there is any country that still practices slavery of that kind. Did other countries, or did you, raise with the United Nations an objection to Mauritania being elevated within the United Nations hierarchy? Do you think that is a valuable tactic that we ought to be thinking about here in Australia—given our particular role in the United Nations—in preventing people who have or tolerate such practices being given international recognition?

Mr Grono : Mauritania is an appalling case because, as you say, I think it is the only country that has a broad recognition of what we call descent-based slavery. I was not aware of the particular instance you are talking about, but Mauritania is certainly one of the governments that we want to campaign against. A government that openly recognises slavery—and in fact is jailing human rights defenders who are campaigning against slavery—is exactly the kind of issue that Walk Free sees as an issue that we should be promoting. If the appropriate occasion arises, it is an issue that Australia could raise given its position on the UN Security Council.

Mr DANBY: I do not mean to sound like a dissident in the government but I think that this is precisely one of those occasions. I will get you a copy of the recent controversy at the United Nations about the elevation of Mauritania. I think it would have been a good thing if Australia had actually said something about it. I think if we had known—either parliamentarians or worthy NGOs like you—then simply slightly twisting the arm of the Foreign Minister would have elicited such a statement. So it is probably something you should follow up and I will certainly follow up with you.

Mr Grono : I would be very happy to.

Mr RUDDOCK: I recently had Nestle come to see me and say what a great job they were doing in relation to this. Are they the only ones that are doing something like this?

Mr Grono : No. I will address it briefly and Fiona may have more—she is much more expert in slavery than I am. There is a big problem in West Africa, and there always has been, of people moving between countries—and I have engaged in this in my former role at International Crisis Group—so there are big immigrant populations coming in from places like Burkina Faso into Cote d'Ivoire, where they are vulnerable and are often enslaved. The cocoa industry, perhaps a decade or so ago, started getting a lot of very unwelcome attention about the fact that slaves may be used to produce cocoa and hence chocolate. When you have a consumer product that people are aware of, it is much easier to gain traction.

Nestle also briefed Walk Free when they came out here, as we have been encouraging them to be very transparent about their supply chains. There is actually a very good initiative going on in West Africa, where big corporations, local cooperatives and NGOs have been working together to improve efforts. There is still a way to go and there are a lot of big producers who do not necessarily sign up to that initiative, but it certainly provides a model for a way forward and other companies are part of that initiative.

Mr RUDDOCK: I guess the Fortescue group would see additional costs imposed on its own business operations by government, would it not? Enhanced red tape. I am just wondering how one might argue for very significant additional reporting requirements on companies operating in Australia who have linkages abroad that may impose quite significant costs and impact on their competitive position. Where might you suggest that we could reduce other red tape so that this beneficial red tape can be pursued? Have you really thought about it in terms of those sorts of questions?

Mr Grono : We have certainly thought about it and it is a very valid question. First of all, Fortescue probably does not mind too much because it is already doing it. There is a cost, and Fortescue has embraced the fact that it needs to—particularly if its chairman is taking a leading role globally on slavery—have a squeaky clean supply chain. That comes at a cost.

Mr RUDDOCK: What would the cost be? I do not mean actual amounts, but percentage.

Mr Grono : I do not know, but I can look into it and see if I can get you a figure. I would have to speak to Fortescue.

Mr RUDDOCK: It would just be very helpful to understand the nature of the impact.

Mr Grono : The process that they have gone through is to go out to all of their suppliers and ask them to sign statutory declarations that they will look at their own supply chains and their own operations and, where there are real risks, engage a firm that will actually look at one or two of the big suppliers and identify ways in which those suppliers can address concerns. To your larger issue, I do not know if I will be able to satisfy your concerns on this particular issue, but there is a movement globally in this direction. If you operate in California and have sales over $100 million, you already have to meet these requirements—so a lot of big, global corporations will do this.

Mr DANBY: Sorry, it is over how many dollars?

Mr Grono : $100 million. There are related obligations that are coming in—such as conflict minerals and the Dodd-Frank Act in the US—saying that companies that provide products or source conflict minerals have to make certain declarations about processes that they have looked at. In the UK there is legislation before the parliament to similar effect. The Australian government has just announced a procurement initiative to take steps to ensure that the Commonwealth government is doing its best to ensure that its supply chain is free of forced labour and slavery.

One argument is that this is the way that the world is moving, in that it is understood that businesses have certain obligations—one would hope not unduly onerous obligations—and most of these requirements are about just publishing information saying, 'We have looked at our supply chain, we have taken these steps,' or, 'We don't have a problem.' But yes, it does involve effort. Companies are getting much more focused on their corporate social responsibility obligations in a range of areas. You have things like the UN Global Compact—which many companies, including Fortescue, are in the process of signing up to—that have similar requirements. There are obligations on businesses these days, whether one likes it or not, to be a bit more transparent about the way in which their operations can impact on some of these very serious social issues.

Mr RUDDOCK: I know you are not speaking for Fortescue, but can you tell me how many suppliers have had their contracts discontinued because of their inability to certify that they have met the appropriate standards?

Mr Grono : No, I cannot. I can tell you that there is a process going through where they have gone out to thousands of suppliers. They are going through a process, and they are not going to automatically cut suppliers off, but there is a process whereby suppliers who are not willing to give certification, I suspect—and I cannot speak for Fortescue—will find themselves in an unfriendly environment.

Mr RUDDOCK: Provided it is not too difficult. I am assuming you are talking to Fortescue to give us information that is not commercial-in-confidence. I think some idea of a large firm dealing with thousands of suppliers and what impact it has had would be very helpful.

Mr Grono : I am very happy to ask them if they could give us an overview of the steps they have taken. Obviously they would be very uncomfortable about naming any particular companies.

Mr RUDDOCK: As I say, you can deal with it conscious of commercial-in-confidence issues. If it meant that you go through this process and you find nobody—

Mr DANBY: Or trends such as seven companies decided to do 'X'.

CHAIR: Mr David, would you like to comment?

Ms David : On Mauritania? Or on cocoa?

CHAIR: Both.

Ms David : On cocoa I believe the question was: is Nestle the only company that is taking—

Mr RUDDOCK: No, I said they are the ones who briefed me.

Ms David : The answer is many of the cocoa companies are working in partnership not only with governments in West Africa but also with the civil society so that is a really good model of how companies can work effectively in this space. On Mauritania, as Nick said, I was not aware of the UN elevation either. It would be interesting to look into.

Mr DANBY: I think it is on the Human Rights Council.

Mr RUDDOCK: They are there with good company such as Syria. There are a few others I saw. I think you often end up with Cuba there and Venezuela. They are very worthy candidates for commenting on human rights.

Mr DANBY: And they are moderate.

Mr Grono : Having said that, for an organisation that is actually campaigning on this issue, it is an entirely appropriate issue and one that would be of great interest to those who support action on this issue.

CHAIR: You have talked about the announcement the government has made. Do you have any particular suggestions in regards to supply chain analysis? Are there things the government should do and focus on?

Mr Grono : We would encourage the government to look at implementing legislation on transparency in supply chains. I think the government has made a big step forward in announcing that procurement initiative on Friday because it can use its power to encourage businesses to make efforts to ensure that their supply chains are free of slavery and forced labour. It is following a trend that has been established by the US, which has very robust requirements in procurement and slavery. Again, Australia is not out on its own. That would be the primary focus on business.

CHAIR: Are there any failings in alternatives overseas in regards to transparency? Is there anything we have to guarded about? Is there anything we have to make sure happens in this process?

Mr Grono : Not that I am aware of. I would certainly caution against an overly intrusive regulatory approach. I fully understand. I am a big supporter though in approaches that talk about transparency and publishing information and then leave it to the market, civil society and others to encourage businesses without imposing Draconian requirements on them. I suggest that is an appropriate model that has been implemented in America as reasonably commerce-friendly, but the US is willing to impose these obligations on corporations.

Senator STEPHENS: The notion of supply chains is very interesting. There are the obvious industries that we think about whether it is mining or clothing manufacturing. I am interested in where you might see that there are new and emerging industries or activities that are starting to use slavery or slavery-like conditions? Do you have any observations around that?

Ms David : For me it would be fishing. I use the word 'fishing' broadly to include packing, processing, factory processing and actually collecting fish. I would include electronics in countries such as Malaysia and any other countries in our region where electronics are assembled. There has been a lot of publicity recently around tinning of fruit and all sorts of terrible allegations of factory conditions in food processing. I think you mentioned garment manufacturing already. It is another one as well.

Senator STEPHENS: I know that one of my colleagues asked the question about what the Australian government can do. Do you think that there is any opportunity for these things to be written into memorandums of understanding, in the kind of cooperative agreements that we might be entering into—particularly where we are developing stronger relationships with countries—rather than something like a free-trade agreement? Do you think that those kinds of intergovernmental agreements are the place to start, or do we need to be focused on the industries?

Mr Grono : Our approach—and this is governed by our particular way of operating and the leverage that we bring—is to encourage action in-country. We have a small project in Myanmar. We will be encouraging businesses engaging there. We were talking with AusAID this morning, and their business roundtable is going to work on Myanmar to say, as businesses rush into places like Myanmar, 'Here is a time to think about your supply chains and forced-labour issues and slavery issues.' So certainly that is the approach that we would adopt. I would not be adverse to them, but I know just how difficult these bilateral processes can be on issues that some countries might find fairly complex. So our approach is to raise awareness, work with the appropriate bodies and encourage businesses. Also, if you focus on businesses globally, wherever they are operating, then they have to start ensuring that they have proper practices in place; then you start having an impact in-country in places like Thailand where you get the prawn peeling and the pineapple packing and things like that.

Senator STEPHENS: What about the role of organisations like Meat & Livestock Australia who have a presence in Korea, Japan and China—those kinds of industry bodies? What do you see as their roles?

Mr Grono : I have not given much thought to the specifics. We are a small, new organisation. We will be looking to engage with all of these organisations to say, 'Dealing with these issues is good business.' Say you uncover an issue of forced labour or, even worse from your perspective, an issue of forced labour is uncovered on your behalf; say you are a company that is packing pineapple and you are a global company and it is discovered that forced labour—slavery—is used in packing it, then reputationally it is hugely problematic and everything that goes with it. One way to get information out is to work with trade groups. I have spoken with both the employers' group and the workers' group at the ILO to engage with them. They are very open to Walk Free engaging with all the employers' federations. Likewise, there has been strong interest on the workers' representatives side for Walk Free and others to play a role in raising awareness, and helping advance broader knowledge on the issue and on what needs to be done.

CHAIR: Would you mind covering the ILO and the kind of activity level there—what they can do and what they have been doing?

Mr Grono : The ILO has a very active program on forced labour, and within the United Nations system forced labour falls under the ILO. They do surveys and studies and have other programs raising awareness and improving practices around the place. So it is a good partner for us. I have been to Geneva to meet up with the senior officials to look at ways in which we can work more closely with them.

CHAIR: Have you found the employer representatives fairly cooperative in this?

Mr Grono : They were open to Andrew coming and addressing all of the employers' groups. We will look at following up with that, and obviously the workers' representatives, as to issues of forced labour, are very open to this.

CHAIR: Are there any other questions? If not, thank you very much.

Mr RUDDOCK: Give Andrew my best wishes. Tell him we gave you rigorous questioning.

Mr Grono : He would expect no less.

CHAIR: Thank you for your attendance here today. If you have been asked to provide any additional material would you please forward it to the secretary. You will be sent a copy of the transcript of the evidence to which you can make corrections of grammar and fact. Would a member please move that the subcommittee authorise publication of the evidence given before the committee today?

Resolved (on motion by Senator Stephens):

That this committee authorises publication of the transcript of the evidence given before it at public hearing this day.

CHAIR: I declare the hearing closed.

Committee adjourned at 13:39