Private: Supermarket giants identify hundreds of farm workers ‘at risk’ of slavery

Woolworths has identified 332 Australian fruit and vegetable suppliers within its supply chain where workers are at risk of slave-like conditions, as part of its first-ever review under new modern slavery laws.

Nov 26, 2020, updated Nov 27, 2020
Robbie Katter and some local Queensland councils want young offenders sent bush to stop the youth crime wave.

Robbie Katter and some local Queensland councils want young offenders sent bush to stop the youth crime wave.


And Coles has conceded farms that harvest producers can send their produce to a packhouse not covered by its ethical sourcing program.

The Modern Slavery Act was introduced in 2018 to require companies to review their supply chains and check if workers face human trafficking, servitude, forced labour, deceptive recruiting or other poor conditions.

The companies’ first statements under the law have been released ahead of the December 31 deadline.

Joanna Howe, Associate Professor in Law at the University of Adelaide, said the first reports were a “highly significant moment” for migrant workers but more needed to be done.

“In order for this not to be merely window dressing, the statements that they make need to be capable of investigation,” Dr Howe said.

“Self-reporting is public relations for these large companies unless there is accountability on the claims that they make in their statements.”

Woolworths has reviewed its direct suppliers and the suppliers that supply to them, known as indirect suppliers.

It found stone fruit and berry farms were more likely to rely on labour-hire firms, which have been linked to labour transgressions in the past.

Berries and citrus had the most sites classed “at risk” of slavery, though grapes had a large number relative to the number of suppliers.

The 332 “at-risk” sites include some that have not completed their risk profile or still have not met Woolworths’ requirements.

A spokesperson for Woolworths said “we’re committed to identifying and resolving modern slavery risks in our supply chains and will always do the right thing in the interest of workers when potential issues are identified”.

They noted Woolworths provides a confidential reporting service in eight languages and sets “clear expectations” for suppliers through its responsible-sourcing policy.

A Coles spokesperson said the company “opposes slavery and worker exploitation in all forms” and understood suppliers often required significant numbers of temporary workers during the harvest period.

“We require suppliers to ensure that labour-hire providers meet all legal and ethical obligations, including being licensed where this is a requirement.”

The Coles modern slavery statement noted some farms at the start of the supply chain were not covered by their ethical sourcing program. The company’s spokesperson pledged Coles would “expand and improve” it.

Australian Workers’ Union national secretary Dan Walton said the fruit and vegetable sector was the “petri dish” for worker exploitation in Australia but said big companies were slowly realising their reputations were at stake.

“We’re starting to see some nice and fluffy words coming out of corporate Australia, but actions speak louder than words,” he said.

He praised Coles for participating in a program with the union that is holding events to enable workers to share stories and identify dodgy farms. But he added Woolworths “has still got the blinkers on”.

The Woolworths spokesperson said transparency was the “core” of its approach and “we know there is more to do, and remain focused on working closely with our suppliers, regulators, industry bodies and unions to drive further improvement in this space”.

Howe said there had been many major investigations in 2020 into unpaid wages, sexual harassment and other labour issues.

“These statements are a step in the right direction, but we need investigation, monitoring, scrutiny and enforcement to drive cultural change.”

A 2018 report from the Fair Work Ombudsman found over half of 638 horticulture businesses investigated breached workplace laws.

The inquiry that led to the report interviewed people working at supermarkets.

One interviewee claimed consumers found price to be more important than ethical sourcing when choosing what to buy.

“Ethical sourcing isn’t consumer-driven, it’s more about the brand’s fear of being exposed for buying from sub-standard farms.”

The pandemic has led to a shortfall of farm workers due to border closures.

The National Agricultural Workforce Strategy, which aims to ensure farmers have access to a fit-for-purpose workforce, is due to be released shortly.

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