“Everyone [must] regulate his conduct by the golden rule of doing to others as in similar circumstances we would have them do to us, and the path of duty will be clear before him.” – William Wilberforce
It is the prerogative of established business to be competitive in post-protectionist marketplaces that welcome imitations from growing economies. But the race to the bottom, while not without its impact on workers in developed countries, plays out in earnest in the factories, fishing vessels and brick kilns of the developing and least developed world. As this disproportionate burden falls outside the purview of the consumer, the question arises as to who is responsible? The answer, simply put, is that everyone who engages within the economy as a consumer, whether as an individual or a corporation, bears the weight of this responsibility.
While we, as consumers, generally feel an obligation to respect international labour laws within our own political context, and not place undue pressure on those who provide goods and services in our own community, there is often a disconnect with the experiences of workers further down the value chain. Information becomes far harder to procure once value chains straddle multiple continents and political systems. Too often this leads to an apathetic or lethargic response from both multinationals and their customer base. But increased attention in both the media and in academia has provoked an uneasy awareness among those whose geography has afforded them the good fortune of being able to take their comfort largely for granted. Just as the leaders of the 20th century were confronted with the heavy toll of freedom, so too this generation is being forced to grapple with the true cost of convenience.
Indentured labourer’s, trafficked slaves and seafarers who find themselves in lawless or exploitative schemes are rarely able to communicate the desperation of their situation, yet we know that there are more people enslaved today than at any other time in history. From textiles to seafood, jewellery to chocolate, the reality of globalized value chains is not just a reduction in price point, but also a greying of the morality that surrounds acceptable standards in worker rights.
There are however companies that are fighting to provide consumers with products that are free from exploitation and environmental degradation. One stellar example is that of Thai Union and their SeaChange initiative which strives to ensure safe and legal work in all its factories and throughout its supply chain; an initiative which earned Thai Union a highly commended at the Stop Slavery Awards in London last year. Companies such as Thai Union refuse to allow child labour, debt bondage and unfair wages into their supply chains, but it comes at a financial cost. The reason so many companies cut these corners is that it makes financial sense. When the goal is to return healthy dividends to shareholder, cutting an extra percentage off the wage of 10,000 workers in Vietnam can be an easy fix. When the worth of a product is determined solely by its financial value, the decisions made around the provision of that product will also be solely financial. If, however, consumers display to brands and retailers that they value human rights and environmental protection, these factors will necessarily permeate the perceived value of that product. A great deal of effort has been invested into generating collaborative action against environmental degradation to save our planet from destruction. The same approach is needed to strategically combat an economic system that fails to put people first.
The question then, is what can be done at a strategic level? The answer quite simply is transparency. An equality of business practice that shines a light on every corner not just of the industries in our own countries, but of the supporting industries – second, third and fourth tier supplier all over the world – reaching back to the cotton farms, the iron ore mines and fishing fleets. Consumers then have the ability to select those companies whose values align with their own and purchase or invest accordingly, thereby transforming the global supply chain into a tool used to, “leverage opportunities for social and economic progress”, as envisioned by the ILO. Already there are movements working to engender this reality. In Australia, Baptist World Aid produces a yearly report, holding to account all fashion brands that retail in the Australian market. Examining transparency and ethics in the supply chain, as well as worker rights and environmental responsibility, they have been able to reward brands that are striving to improve conditions while placing question marks over brands who are yet to allocate resources towards addressing these issues. The result, to the surprise of many well-established brands, has been a change in consumer spending habits.
Just as Wilberforce fought slavery on the ships of old that brought wealth and convenience to the rich, so too the abolitionists of today seek to defend the voiceless millions who are tethered to the supply chains that provide our consumer goods. The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 sent shock waves through the economy of the British Empire as it approached its peak, but 186 years later, the reality of slavery is still with us. As the UK Modern Slavery Act of 2015 and the consequent Australian Modern Slavery Act of 2018 have shown, governments are recognizing the need to react and are pushing legislation to hold whole industries accountable. But there remain influential stakeholders in multiple industries who benefit from the opacity of the current supply chain status quo, so the fight for transparency cannot end here. On the contrary, it has only just begun.
– By Caleb Bjorem
 Free the Slaves, ‘Slavery Today’, www.freetheslaves.net/our-model-for-freedom/slavery-today/ (accessed 15 June, 2019)
 Thai Union, ‘Safe and Legal Labour’, seachangesustainability.org (accessed 21 June, 2019)
 ILO, 2019, ILO Centenary Declaration for the future of work adopted by the conference at its one hundred and eighth session, Geneva, 21 June 2019, p.4
 Baptist World Aid, ‘Ethical Fashion Guide’, https://baptistworldaid.org.au/resources/2019-ethical-fashion-guide/ (accessed 20 June, 2019)