The new tide of slavery

May 2019

Did you know there are more slaves now than at any other time in recorded history?

Slavery. It’s a word that might conjure up grainy images of captured people serving a privileged master in a not-so-distant bygone era. But ‘Modern slavery’, as it’s known, is a real issue and is something on our radar here at UniSuper.

reels of cotton thread

So, what is modern slavery?

It’s a broad term for a range of exploitative practices and labour rights abuses, such as forced labour and human trafficking.

“Essentially, for super funds like us—and by extension, our members—it’s about understanding your supply chain,” says Sybil Dixon, Senior Investment Analyst in UniSuper’s investments team. “It’s trying to understand where there are risks of modern slavery occurring and trying to manage those risks.”

There’s a distinction between poor work practices and modern slavery, Sybil says, noting that for slavery to be present there has to be some sort of restriction of rights.

“You're not going to get modern slavery without poor work practices, but poor work practices can exist without slavery,” Sybil says.

“Someone could be doing casual hospitality work and be underpaid—but they’d be free to quit that job tomorrow. With modern slavery, someone is likely to be holding something extra over your head,” Sybil says—be it a physical restriction or a threat, such as reporting a visa breach.

It can happen anywhere

Modern slavery can affect any country and the United Nations estimates there are more than 40 million victims of modern slavery worldwide1. Over half of these victims are exploited in the Asia-Pacific region, in which the supply chains of a significant number of large businesses operating in Australia are based. Modern slavery can occur in any sector or industry, and at any point in a supply chain. Internationally, high-risk industries include agriculture, construction, electronics, extractives, fashion and hospitality.

Modern Slavery Bill 2018 – Explanatory Memorandum


Even in highly developed countries like Australia with good rule of law, there are known instances of modern slavery, says Lou Capparelli—UniSuper’s Manager of Sustainable Portfolios and Governance.

“In fruit picking, in security contracts, in franchising—we’ve had a number of issues with slavery-like conditions in those sectors. We’re trying to understand whether the companies we invest in use these and other kinds of at-risk services, and then set about ensuring that these sorts of practices aren’t present,” Lou says.

At the heart of it, UniSuper seeks to ensure people are being treated in a way that’s ethical and fair, and that they’re being paid appropriately, Lou says. “And that applies to the supply chains of all of the companies we invest in—whether it’s contract cleaners in our shopping centres (e.g. Melbourne’s Chadstone and Perth’s Karrinyup), or people picking the fruit you’ll buy at Woolworths or Coles.”

Combating modern slavery in Australia

There are examples of programs that militate against modern slavery in labour hire risk, Sybil says—citing Australia’s Pacific Labour Scheme, which lets citizens of some Pacific Island countries take up low and semi-skilled work in rural and regional Australia for up to three years.

“For these workers, they are paid appropriately, they’re briefed by a union when they arrive, they’re aware of their rights” Sybil says.

The same may not have been true 10-15 years ago, but now companies at all stages of the supply chain now have an interest in how their products are produced or services delivered.

“In the past, supermarkets would have been very hands off,” says Lou. “They might say to their farmers, ‘we want you to deliver peaches and apricots’ and that would be it—very little, if any, engagement on how that fruit was picked or produced. Now, they take that responsibility very seriously.”

The Australian Modern Slavery Act sets out the requirement for some large Australian businesses to publish how they’re addressing modern slavery risks in their operations and supply chains.


Good governance starts at home

At UniSuper, our existing whole-of-fund approach to environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues puts us in good stead on modern slavery.

Over the coming year, we’ll be working towards ensuring full compliance with the Act’s requirements—including publishing annual Modern Slavery Statements on our website which will detail what we’re doing to address modern slavery risks in our operations and supply chains.


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1. Global estimates of modern slavery: Forced labour and forced marriage, International Labour Office, Walk Free Foundation and International Organization for Migration, Geneva, 2017.