As Australia Addresses Modern Slavery, We Ask: Can Fashion Lead?

As Australia Addresses Modern Slavery, We Ask: Can Fashion Lead?

By Clare Press

“We’ve allowed this business model, based on human exploitation, to become lucrative,” Kevin Hyland told an audience of politicians, business leaders, human rights advocates and concerned citizens at an event in the New South Wales Parliament last week. 

He described modern slavery as “a crime of choice,” pushing the onus firmly on all of us to stamp it out. 

The UK’s former independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner was in Australia to launch a new anti-slavery organisation run by Hyland and two Sydney-based, expat Brits with backgrounds in film, TV and impact campaign production, Jane Jeffes and Becky Honey. Its name? War on Slavery. Their plan? To mobilise an international movement on this like we have for climate action and ocean plastics. Oh, and to make a film about it. War on Slavery, the doco, has been approved for philanthropic support by the Documentary Australia Foundation (DAF).

“The idea is to build public awareness globally and harness people power to shift the issue to the forefront of public consciousness,” says Honey. “There are too many people who literally have no idea what modern slavery is, let alone if what they’re buying may have been tainted by it. In 2019, despite being illegal everywhere, 40-to-45 million people live in slavery. Two thirds in our region. A quarter, children. We’re talking about the largest number of slaves the world has ever seen.”

While the issue is clearly global - Hyland was en route from a conference in Singapore, and talked up the importance of having the G20 aligned on an international action plan - there’s been a focus on modern slavery in Australia recently. Hyland’s replacement, Sara Thornton, was here 10 days ago attending a conference organised by the Australian Department of Home Affairs. Why all this attention Down Under? 

In January, Australia’s Commonwealth Modern Slavery Act commenced, requiring businesses with revenues over $Aus 100 million to report annually on the risks of modern slavery in their supply chains. (That’s a considerably higher threshold than the UK’s £36 million, which is approx. $Aus 65 million). These statements are to be made publically available through a central register. The Australian federal law imposes no penalties for failing to lodge a statement or for lodging an incomplete one.  

The state of NSW is currently considering its own bill, which is stricter, requiring businesses with a turnover of $Aus 50 million to report, and - critically - imposing penalties for failure to do so, or for providing false or misleading information in the statement. These penalties could go up to$Aus 1.1 million. Hyland praised NSW legislators for going bolder. But before you get too excited, we have yet to see if the bill will pass.

So what role can fashion play? At the meeting, there were representatives from Ethical Clothing Australia, Outland Denim, General Pants and Vogue (if you count me). Honey says that she sees “a significant opportunity” for fashion to lead. 

According to the latest Global Slavery Index (produced by another Australian-based international organisation, the Walk Free Foundation), fashion is one of five key industries implicated in modern slavery. And every year Australia imports over $US 4 billion worth of clothes and accessories at risk of being sullied by it. 

James Dunlop, from Oxfam Australia, said he hoped Hyland’s visit might galvanise action. “It's been a year since that Act was passed by parliament, but just recently the NSW government sent it to Committee for 'changes' instead of enacting it and getting it working. Meeting in Parliament House sent a message to the government that this issue isn't going away.”  

In a series of reports called What She Makes, Oxfam has revealed the tangled web of fashion supply chains, and the dangers of paying poverty wages and increasing vulnerability of some of the world’s poorest - who, surprise, surprise, tend to be women.

“We’ve focused on the fashion industry because whilst it’s an incredible employer of women, especially in countries where they have few options, we all know it has a problem with wages,” he says. 

“From our research in Bangladesh and Vietnam, we’ve found that the women making clothing for big, well-known Australian brands are regularly trapped in poverty, not earning enough to cover the basics for themselves and their families.”

Honey says she expects War on Slavery’s research “to uncover a lot more from fashion. We know it has a huge footprint and can have extremely negative impacts on the environment, but I suspect the story of fashion and modern slavery is only just beginning.”


Clare Press is Fashion Roundtable’s Global Sustainability Expert. Listen to her interview Lola Young on the Wardrobe Crisis podcast here.

More information on Oxfam Australia’s What She Makes campaign, here.

(Image supplied by War on Slavery)

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