Our big supermarkets have released their first statements under new modern slavery laws.
Our big supermarkets have released their first statements under new modern slavery laws.

Berry and citrus farms most at risk, slavery report reveals

OUR big supermarkets have released their first statements under new modern slavery laws.

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.

Also in 2018, a report from the Fair Work Ombudsman found over half of 638 horticulture businesses investigated breached workplace laws.

Statements from Coles and Woolworths have been released prior to the December 31 reporting deadline and show that stone fruit and berry farms were more likely to rely on labour-hire firms, which have been linked to labour transgressions in the past.

Woolworths has identified 332 Australian fruit and vegetable suppliers within its supply chain where workers are at risk of slave-like conditions.

Berries and citrus had the most sites classed "at risk" of slavery.

Coles has conceded farms that harvest produce then send it to a packhouse are not covered by its ethical sourcing program.

Blueberry pickers at work.
Blueberry pickers at work.

The Australian Workers Union (AWU) has confirmed it is currently conducting an investigation into possible workplace breaches in the horticultural industry in the Coffs Harbour region.

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Australian Workers Union national secretary Dan Walton says the fruit and vegetable sector was the "petri dish" for worker exploitation in Australia.

He has welcomed the early statements saying big companies are 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," Mr Walton 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".

A Woolworths spokesperson says the company knows there is more to do; and they're committed to identifying and resolving labour risks in their supply chains and will always do the right thing in the interest of workers when potential issues are identified.

"We have set clear expectations for our suppliers to uphold the rights of workers through our Responsible Sourcing Policy and focus closely on those areas where we know there is a heightened risk across the whole industry," A Woolworths spokesperson said. 

"We work with suppliers in a range of ways to mitigate risks in their own operations and supply chain.  Transparency is the core of our approach - working with suppliers to increase visibility of the labour practices in our supply chain, and holding ourselves accountable by documenting our progress and challenges."

Their confidential reporting service, Speak Up, is available in eight languages and allows workers to directly raise concerns.

"We initiate investigations immediately when allegations are made.

"We remain focused on working closely with our suppliers, regulators, industry bodies and unions to drive further improvement in this space."

Read the full Modern Slavery Statement 2020 from Woolworths