Plutocrat philanthropy and workers' rights

Submitted by AWL on 8 June, 2021 - 3:37 Author: Wilson Gibbons
Andrew Forrest

Andrew Forrest is an Australian mining magnate and billionaire who set up a foundation with the seemingly benign purpose to “end modern slavery in our generation”. But as with Bill Gates and his philanthropic foundation, all is not what it seems.

In spite of his lobbying for patents and intellectual property, Bill Gates has actually helped some people in the global south get vaccinated. Forrest’s advocacy does very little to alleviate the material conditions which make modern slavery, namely poverty. Within Australia, Forrest’s chief lobbying has been for controls and limits on welfare spending.

Andrew Forrest calls on companies to conduct audits, and then produce a Corrective Action Plan. But what that plan means, beyond further auditing, is unclear.

A free market ideology underpins this, in which businesses and markets drive all improvement. Businesses will fight modern slavery by virtue of being responsive to the market.

Little to no attention is paid to capitalist corporations’ logic of increasing productivity and the drive to reduce costs, or to the willingness of capitalists to work with oppressive regimes around the world in order to access cheap labour, such as Uyghur forced labour in China or prison labour in the USA.

The fight to end modern slavery comes to be not about helping workers win rights, but about doing “good business” and ethical consumerism. Companies will be motivated to tackle modern slavery because people will “vote with their money”.

Forrest’s Walk Free Foundation has signalled some support for cash transfers to poor people, both conditional and non-conditional. But on non-conditional transfers they say they have no good data yet; and their report is unclear what exactly they mean by conditional.

Research by Katherine Brickell and others has shown the harmful effects that microfinance loans, a form of conditional cash transfer, have had on agricultural workers in Cambodia. Poverty reduction schemes via small high interest loans leave people unable to pay down their loans because of the interest. They end up forced to work in bonded labour for local capitalists to whom they’ve turned to pay off the loans.

The Global Slavery Index

Forrest set up the Walk Free Foundation after an audit of the supply chain of his company, Fortescue Metals, found forced and bonded labour. He turned to Bill Gates for advice. Gates told him that he needed to put a number to the issue, an estimate of the number of enslaved people in the world today. Forrest created the Global Slavery Index (GSI) with the help of academic Kevin Bales.

The GSI has become the most widely used measure of modern slavery. In fact, it was foundational to creating and mainstreaming concept of “modern slavery” by drawing together a number of forms of extreme exploitation under that umbrella of modern slavery. This involves making a political decision about what crosses the threshold into “modern slavery” and what doesn’t.

Walk Free has continually revised its definition of modern slavery to include additional forms of exploitation; but it still serves to separate off some forms of exploitation as unique and evil, “a destructive, personal crime and an abuse of human rights”, a “widespread profitable criminal industry”, and to obscure routine labour relations in global supply chains.

This separating-off constructs a picture where it’s not the big multinational company’s fault that there is forced labour: the problem lies with criminals down the supply chain.

Walk Free produces document after document on how “corporate social responsibility” is the most effective institutions to tackle modern slavery. It portrays businesses as having a unique set of tools to tackle modern slavery, and better placed than NGOs or Governments.

It claims that businesses are used to acting across borders, and can do so quickly. If businesses have “modern slavery” in their supply chains, it is because they don’t know it’s there or they don’t know how to respond, not because of drives for profit.

The myth of ethical consumers

In fact, no consumer knows what is going on in the cotton fields which produce clothes for Zara or Nike. Or whether the workers who mine the metals for their laptop or smartphone are children, or have their passports withheld. Audits which send observers to check, but don’t engage with workers, won’t either.

At best “ethical production” becomes a market niche without affecting the broader structures of modern slavery. It’s like expensive environmentally-friendly products which find a niche while the vast majority of companies continue as before. This isn’t new. During the transatlantic slave trade the “Free-Produce Movement” attempted to convince well-to-do, ethically-minded people to pay for products produced without slave labour. That had very little effect on the use of slavery in global production.

Some companies may take on board the recommendations of the Walk Free Foundation, but since the incentive is to find a market slot catering to “ethical consumers”, in fact most companies in the UK barely even keep up with their legal requirements on modern slavery.

Walk Free’s documents repeatedly push the point that modern slavery isn’t just something that happens “over there” (i.e. in the global South), but it casts the blame for modern slavery largely on governments in the global South for not taking a strong enough stand against it, sidelining the role of multinational corporations and global institutions in the creation and maintenance of low labour standards through debt, lobbying, and profiteering.

Walk Free exalts the responses of Western governments to modern slavery, ignoring the prevalence of modern slavery in the global North, particularly in jobs like cleaners or housekeepers. It whitewashes the moves by many governments to raise borders ever higher, creating the very conditions that allow modern slavery to flourish.

The labour movement and the left must become the frontline defenders of workers at all levels of the supply chain, and build solidarity across borders. As long as we leave it to philanthropists, corporations and governments to fiddle around the edges, workers will lose out.

Forrest is not necessarily a bogeyman or a uniquely evil individual. He is a capitalist. Capitalist philanthropy will not gift workers their rights or tackle the root causes of “modern slavery”. The labour movement can and must stake our claim and fight for solutions which empower workers and which give us greater democratic control over our workplaces and the wealth we create.

• More on modern slavery here.

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