International Women’s Day: #BeBoldForChange and modern slavery

LexisNexis Legal & Professional, Business Insight Solutions, 7 March 2017

This Wednesday is International Women's Day, a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. It also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity. This day is a good moment to shine a light on the issue of forced labour, as 55% of people who are estimated to be in forced labour are women and girls (11.4 million according to the International Labour Organization statistics).

This year's theme is "Be bold for change"; to call on people to help forge a better working world - a more gender inclusive world.

Aligned to this theme, two countries, France and Australia, have recently been making efforts to adopt new legislation for businesses regarding modern slavery. Similar to the UK Modern Slavery Act, and California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, the legislation whilst applying at national level, will have a direct impact on international companies.

France adopts corporate duty of care law

At the end of February, the French Parliament adopted the long-awaited law (Vigilance Bill) establishing a duty of care obligation for parent and subcontracting companies. Those that need to comply will need to ensure human rights due diligence throughout their operations and global supply chains.

Companies based in France with over 5,000 employees and French companies with 10,000 employees globally, will need to develop vigilance plans i.e. plans to ensure due diligence throughout a company's operations. This includes domestic operations as well as global supply chains and business relations (subsidiaries, subcontractors, suppliers). The plan should address how the company will mitigate against the risks of infringements to human rights and fundamental freedoms, impact to health, serious impact to the environment and personal injury. The penalty for non-compliance regarding failing to establish or appropriately implement the plan is a fine of up to 10 million euros. If the absence of a plan results in otherwise preventable damages, companies could receive a fine of up to 30 million euros. Also, non-compliant companies could incur civil liability and victims could seek damages.

Australia following UK example

On 15th February, an Australian Senator asked the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade to inquire into establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia, comparable to the law in the UK.*

'The appalling practice of modern slavery is a scourge that regrettably continues to affect millions of people around the world, including in Australia,' Foreign Affairs and Aid Sub-Committee Chair, Mr Chris Crewther MP, said.

'[This action] provides the opportunity to explore whether Australia's laws could be improved to prevent modern slavery both in Australia and in supply chains of businesses and organisations that operate in Australia and overseas.'

Other countries that have implemented laws that impact international companies because of the risk or existence of modern slavery in their operations or supply chains are the US (read more in this free report covering modern slavery in the construction sector) and the Netherlands.

*UK Modern Slavery Act
The Transparency in Supply Chains clause of the 2015 UK Modern Slavery Act has moved modern slavery up the agenda of companies both in the UK and across the world. It requires commercial organisations operating in the UK, with an annual turnover of £36 million or more, to prepare an annual statement on the steps the company has taken, if any, to ensure slavery and human trafficking is not happening in its own business and supply chains. Our video provides insight into the obligations.