Q&A: Molly Harriss Olson on the importance of a Modern Slavery Act

Molly Harriss Olson, Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand’s chief executive officer. Photo by: Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand

MELBOURNE, Australia — A total of 196 submissions have been received for an Australian government inquiry for the implementation of a Modern Slavery Act, including from corporations, nonprofits, government staffers, researchers and others with an interest in ensuring Australian businesses act ethically to ensure there is no slavery in their supply chains.

On Tuesday in Melbourne, the inquiry began its public hearing component, with Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand and Oxfam among the organizations requested to speak to the committee members and provide additional information on their submission.

Among those in attendance was Molly Harriss Olson, chief executive officer of Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand, who shared with Devex her predictions for what Australian businesses and the community should expect from the inquiry recommendations to be released later this year.

Here is the interview, edited for length and clarity.

What was the line of questioning you received from the committee?

We were asked a broad set of questions about why the Modern Slavery Act is important, what is the situation today, what is international best practice and the essential things that we can improve upon from the recently released United Kingdom act.

There were also a lot of questions asked about its impact on business.

We emphasized that the act needs to be strong to support the business leaders already out there, already doing great work, and pulling the leg of laggards to help them to comply with a higher standard and make sure human rights and dignity are provided to all people.

Slavery is a continuum of abuses, and starts with the weakest and most vulnerable. For businesses, slavery is always going to be cheaper than paying a modern, living wage and the prevailing approach has been “don’t ask, don’t tell” to maintain plausible deniability.

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But there are a lot of leading companies that deeply understand the problems and challenges that exist in supply chains, and believe that because of the pressure and the way global commerce systems work, there is enormous competition and pressure.

Fairtade has a unique perspective to offer on the value of this kind of transparency in eliminating things like modern slavery.

For more than 30 years we have worked with businesses to make their supply chain transparent and understand it from farmer through to the company and the marketplace. We have visibility across supply chains that I don’t believe many other global certification systems would have. And this is important knowledge to share in creating a Modern Slavery Act.

When you discuss the importance of Australia taking a strong leadership approach to slavery through a strong act, what are your key points to focus on?

I think it is important to point out that, in Australia, we are in a region where 56 per cent of the global 21 million people in slave labor conditions are based. Asia is the biggest place and problem for slave labor, which has been identified by the International Labour Organization.

Australian leadership, and Australian business leadership, is absolutely pivotal.

And we also have a situation where leadership companies are doing the right thing and they are forced to play against non-leadership and poorly run companies who are benefitting from poor practices that are ultimately causing the issues of slavery we are seeing in the world.

What we hope this will do, is in a straightforward and simple way, provide clarity and requirements for a level playing field.

It’s really important the system have clear reporting to monitor companies and create a public register for community organizations to access and know which companies are doing the right thing, reporting in a transparent manner, and which are getting on top of these issues.

And it is extremely important to have an ombudsman or commissioner who is well resourced to respond to problems or issues, raise awareness and conduct monitoring and evaluation for the act to make a powerful impact.

“We have more slavery in the world than we had hundreds of years ago when we were trying to abolish it.”

— Molly Harriss Olson, chief executive officer of Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand

From the business perspective, it is just good business practice to know what is going on in your supply chain. In the 50s, there was concern about safety being too costly for business. The same happened with quality and environmental protection. It turns out that companies which adhere to these kinds of standards are more profitable in the end because they understand their businesses better.

We’re in an interesting place in Australia, and I hope this will build on the experience of the U.K. From them, we are already seeing what is working well and what Australia can improve on.

Do you or Fairtrade have concerns of political barriers, or politicians, that could create problems in implementing a Modern Slavery Act?

I think it would be extremely hard to stand up publicly and say “I’m for slavery.” So far, we haven’t seen anyone coming out overtly in that way.

The concern is that it is very easy to water down something like this, and to make it ineffectual. There would be enormous pressure on anyone trying to reduce impact and effectiveness. Making it voluntary, making it unenforceable, not being clear on reporting requirements, not monitoring reporting are all ways the act could be watered down.

But we have more slavery in the world than we had hundreds of years ago when we were trying to abolish it and the short-term challenge of developing the frameworks for monitoring, evaluation and reporting will be a long-term be cost saving to companies — there is nothing more costly than for your reputation to be absolutely destroyed.

The problem we have seen in the U.K. is that only about 30 percent of companies who are required to report have reported. For the ones that have reported, there is no clear, publicly-available site where organizations can look up reports.

We can learn from this, and do better in Australia.

Based on the lines of questioning and political statements so far on a Modern Slavery Act, what do you think we will see with recommendations from this inquiry?

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There is a high expectation that there will be mandatory reporting and enforcement of that reporting. We expect there will be a very well-resourced commissioner, and the CEO and the board of businesses will be identified as responsible for their company’s business practices.

We expect it to be strong. I think there are a lot of organizations across Australia supporting strong legislation, and we are hopeful it will be an effective piece of improvement for the world.

With Australia expected to get a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, how important is it to have strong and leading legislation such as the Modern Slavery Act to Australia’s international reputation?

It is extremely important.

In the eyes of the international community, Australia has a number of issues that it has not dealt with well in regard to human rights. But this is not a trade-off — I see it as something where Australian leadership can be pivotal in providing regional integrity but for Australia to have a seat, our consistency and integrity across the board needs to be present.

Even if we pass the best Modern Slavery Act in the world, we still have to address these other human rights issues.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.