The infrastructure sector across Australia and New Zealand must adopt proactive measures to prevent modern slavery from occurring within its projects and supply chains, a webinar has heard.

Hosted by the Infrastructure Sustainability Council, the Modern Slavery in the Infrastructure Sector webinar explored the potential risks which are associated with modern slavery across the infrastructure sector along with strategies that can be adopted in order to prevent modern slavery from occurring.

Panellists included Kerry Griffiths, Technical Director at the Infrastructure Sustainability Council; Alexander Coward, Director at human rights policy at policy development, risk management and stakeholder engagement consultancy Pillar Two; Lucy Forbes, Acting Senior Legal Policy Officer at the Office of the Anti-Slavery Commissioner in New South Wales; Sebastian Conley, Sustainable Procurement Manager at toll road operator Transurban; and Anderson Camargo, Sustainability Manager at infrastructure operation, maintenance and management firm Venitia.

The webinar comes as the infrastructure sector faces challenges in preventing modern slavery.

As defined in Australia’s Modern Slavery Act 2018, ‘modern slavery’ refers to conduct that would constitute slavery like offences.

It includes forced labour, deceptive recruitment, debt bondage, human trafficking and the worst forms of child labour.

In 2022, the International Labour Organisation estimated that 27.6 million people live in modern slavery worldwide. (A further 22 million people are estimated to live in forced marriage.)

Of these, 18 percent work in the construction industry.

Less developed nations are not the only ones affected.

In Australia specifically, human rights group Walk Free estimates that 41,000people live in modern slavery.

Speaking about the infrastructure sector, Forbes says that several factors lead to an elevated risk profile when it comes to modern slavery.

These include high levels of demand for low-skilled workers in areas such as construction, cleaning and security; poor visibility over long and complex supply chains; the involvement of many low-tiered suppliers operating in high-risk geographies; and tight project deadlines and seasonality.

She says common modern slavery practices which impact the sector include human trafficking through transit infrastructure such as airports and seaports; forced or unpaid work; unsafe conditions; bonded and child labour; inadequate accommodation and confiscation of passports.

Turning to the specific example of renewable energy, Conley highlights several areas of risk.

These are noted by the Clean Energy Council in its 2022 report Addressing Modern Slavery in the Clean Energy Sector.

In the solar industry, a key component of solar modules is polysilicon, which is used in 95 percent of all modules worldwide.

Around 40-45 percent of this comes from the Xinjian Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang) of China, where around 2.6 million Uyghur and Kazakh citizens are subject to forced labour.

Turning to wind, there are reports that the rapid growth in demand for balsa wood that is used within wind turbine blades has led to many workers in the Amazon region of Ecuador being subject to substandard labour conditions.

In some cases, payment has allegedly been partially made in the form of alcohol or drugs.

The increase in Amazonian logging to meet this demand has also led to concerns of deforestation and the incursion upon the land rights of the local indigenous populations, including in Peru.

Finally, there is the sourcing of cobalt which is used in lithium-ion batteries.

Around 15-30 percent of worldwide cobalt production is sourced from mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where around 250,000 people including at least 35,000 children toil away in artisanal mines in which forced labour, unsafe work, and child labour are rife.

Research by Amnesty International found that children as young as seven were working in cobalt mines for as little at $2 per day.

In response to modern slavery risks, governments and international bodies have established various forms of legislation and guidelines.

In Australia, a major piece of legislation is the aforementioned Modern Slavery Act.

This requires large companies and other entities ($100 million or greater in consolidated revenue) to submit annual statements outlining the risk of modern slavery in their operations and supply chains as well as the measures which are being adopted to address these.

In its final report tabled in Parliament in May last year, a review into the Act’s effectiveness made 30 recommendations to strengthen its operation.

A bill to establish a national Anti-Slavery Commissioner is currently before Parliament. The Commissioner would support victims and survivors of modern slavery as well as businesses who are seeking to address modern slavery risks.

At a state level, separate modern slavery legislation in New South Wales focuses specifically on public sector procurement in that state.

That law requires public sector agencies to take reasonable steps to ensure that goods and services which are procured by the agency are not the product of modern slavery.

Entities have various reporting obligations and are subject to audits from the NSW Auditor General.

To address modern slavery concerns, Conley encourages organisations to identify and address any risks which may be present in their operations or supply chains.

When seeking to identify risks, organisations should:

  • Map the processes and activities which are involved throughout the lifecycle of supply chains and operations.
  • Consider the parts, components and raw materials which go into that lifecycle.
  • Identify people who may be involved throughout the supply chain and operations and track where people may be vulnerable.
  • Understand which practices may have impacts upon these vulnerable people.

When undertaking these exercises, Conley says companies should work with suppliers to identify each process in the supply chain.

Doing so will provide the information from which to assess risks against suppliers in relevant locations. This involves assessing the rule of law (or lack thereof) in relevant locations and any vulnerabilities of people within these areas.

When identifying vulnerable people, considerations should extend to casual and undocumented labour in offshore supply chains as well as labour hire or migrant labour.

Also not forgotten should vulnerable people who work directly and locally on major infrastructure builds.

Considerations regarding vulnerability should extend beyond modern slavery and also incorporate leading indicators of broader potential labour risks which may be involved.

Speaking about the aforementioned state legislation in New South Wales, Forbes says there are a range of tools, resources and publications which the Office of the Anti-Slavery Commissioner in that state provides.

These include:

  • Guidance on reasonable steps to manage modern safety risks
  • Model contract and tender clauses
  • A downloadable tool to help to map modern slavery risks; and
  • A public register to identify non-conforming entities.

In relation to renewables specifically, the Commissioner is working with the Clean Energy Council to develop a Code of Practice for renewable energy value chains.

The aforementioned guidance outlines seven steps that organisations are encouraged to adopt in order to address modern slavery risk.

These range from commitments to avoid modern slavery, planning, responsible sourcing of materials, management of modern safety risks, remedying any breaches, reporting on performance and improving practices.

Conley says that efforts to combat modern slavery will have a significant impact.

“Getting down to these steps that we have highlighted (above) may take some time and commitment” he said.

“However, if the infrastructure sector can collaborate and each stakeholder take ownership, we can all contribute to supporting victims and reducing risks to people.”



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