A recent report released by Walk Free, an international human rights group headed by Grace Forrest, has disclosed some sobering facts about Australia's garment industry and its relationship to modern slavery. The most salient of which speaks to a unsettling lack of transparency among the top 50 garment companies in both Australia and the UK.
In line with Australia's Modern Slavery Act, companies across all sectors are required to provide statements on how they are actively addressing the issue of modern slavery. Over the course of 2021, Walk Free together with WikiRate and a handful of academics from ANU, Nottingham University, Columbia University, and The University of Connecticut, combed through these statements in order to find out if garment companies were meeting the basic requirements of current legislation, and pin down if any had taken initiative and gone further to enact meaningful change.
The report's key findings highlight that in Australia alone, only 31% of companies and their respective statements meet the minimum approval requirements and reporting criteria. As well as this, only 61% of luxury companies have disclosed that their approach to modern slavery is informed by and tailored to meet the risks specific to the garment industry. This is surprising when compared to non-luxury companies who sit at 85%.
What's more is that Walk Free suspect that companies are treating these statements as merely a "box-ticking exercise", with only 65% disclosing that they have detected modern slavery risks. This skews data and Walk Free predicts that there are more incidents than what are being reported as companies are not being totally transparent.
As one could have predicted, the pandemic only exacerbated the risk of garment workers being exploited. With a significant rise in shipment cancellations, as well as cancelled manufacturing orders and factory closures spurred on by global lockdowns, companies suffered huge financial losses. The Walk Free report found that workers bore the brunt of these losses, which for many meant wage cuts and cancelled contracts, or on the other hand, extended hours and being forced to work despite the risk of contracting Covid-19. On top of this, 43% of company statements did not detail any affirmative action taken to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on the supply chain and their workers.
A large reason for undergoing this report, was so that Walk Free could gain a better understanding of what good practice looks like in action, in order to create a more targeted, industry specific approach to tackling modern slavery in the garment industry. The findings light a pathway forward and highlight just how dire the situation. All the data used to collate this report is current as of 1 November, 2021.
You can access the full report and its findings, along will all its recommendations online at the Walk Free website.