With the ballots now counted and winners of the federal election declared, the campaign cleanup begins. Campaign placards and posters are torn down, and promotional t-shirts worn by campaigners are tucked into the back of wardrobes or thrown in the bin.
Throughout the entire election campaign I watched those campaigners and their t-shirts with a sceptical eye. As an advocate myself, I appreciate the enthusiasm behind their work, but the question on my lips was, “Who made your shirts?”
The election came less than a year after the Turnbull government introduced The Modern Slavery Act, requiring Australia’s biggest companies to address modern slavery in their supply chains. The Australian government is also due to start producing their own annual statement about the risks within the Commonwealth’s own procurement channels.
The Act was introduced at the same time The 2018 Global Slavery Index was published, which estimated more than 40 million people worldwide are victims of modern slavery. Of all the industries utilising cheap offshore labour, fashion is second only to technology as the biggest financial supporter of modern slavery.
Going back yet another year, in June 2017, Paul Hanson’s One Nation party came under fire for selling t-shirts made in Bangladesh, a country with a known track record of underpaying its garment workers and allowing for abhorrent workplace health and safety conditions. The party’s t-shirt choice was labelled a hypocritic act from a political leader against globalism with an outspoken dislike of the Muslim faith (it is estimated 90% of the population in Bangladesh is Muslim). In fact, One Nation’s platform at the time included a policy to implement a colour-coded labelling system, to “assist Australians to buy Australian-made”.
Australian made, while good for local industry, doesn’t actually guarantee a product free from slave labour. Supply chains can be long, complex and murky, making traceability an arduous task. The overseas cotton industry, for example, is known to utilise the nimble fingers of small children. The factories who wove the cloth, dyed the thread, manufactured the buttons or embroidered the logos might also have exploited those who work within it.
Then there’s the incredible human toll associated with boycotting products made overseas. Considering 71% of the estimated 40.3 million modern slaves are women, and three-quarters of workers in the global textile, clothing and footwear sector are also women, boycotting overseas products leaves an already vulnerable group of humans at risk of greater exploitation. Without their jobs, this female-dominated group of workers become at risk of sexual exploitation, forced marriage and human trafficking.
Like I said, the issue of supply chains is a complicated one, and boycotting is not the answer if political parties want to provide social justice to those across the world, not just within their electorates. The answer lies in paying a fair price for a product made ethically, which improves the lives of those involved in every layer of the supply chain, instead of exploiting them.
In the lead up to the 2019 election, I referred to the websites for each political party to see how they chose to demonstrate the supply chain transparency they have recently deemed so important. I found nothing except white space. Neither The LNP, The Labor Party, The Australian Greens or even One Nation provide any information about where their T-shirts were made.
To the best of my knowledge, no political party took any steps to ensure their t-shirts were made without the use of slave labour, though I would welcome dialogue proving me wrong.
While the government settles back into business as usual, I would urge each and every one of you to talk to your local MP about modern slavery and the need for transparency through their procurement channels.
Australia is not the solitary island we often identify with. We are part of a global community and our choices, and political parties, have long reach. Demand transparency, not just talk, and ensure our global community benefits from Australian politics.
By Nick Savaidis