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A journey from apathy to empathy to action

August. 21, 2017 / Blog David Cooke / @drdavidcooke

Up until about five years ago, I never really thought much about slavery and, if I ever did, I was reflecting on history, not assessing contemporary society.

A chance meeting with a young woman who was delivering a keynote at a business conference changed all that. Stephanie Lorenzo had just launched Project Futures, a Sydney-based organisation with the mission to raise funds to support victims of human trafficking and sexual slavery in Cambodia. Their main beneficiary partner, AFESIP, is run by local Cambodian advocate Somaly Mam who oversees the work of rescuing, rehabilitating and reintegrating young women who have experienced unimaginable trauma and exploitation.

A few months later I visited Cambodia where I had the opportunity to view AFESIP’s work firsthand.  I met staff, survivors and, remarkably, a number of young women who, despite the extreme trauma they had experienced, were now attending university. Since then I continued to learn more about the prevalence of modern slavery with a further five visits to Cambodia; attendance at the launch of the 2016 Global Slavery Index; and earlier this year completing an online course on the abolition of slavery conducted by Professor Kevin Bales at Nottingham University.

There is a powerful saying that very much applies to my experience in grappling with modern slavery: ‘Once you know something you can’t unknow it. Once you have seen something it cannot be unseen.’ I both know and have seen that slavery exists today. I would like to think that I am a ‘good’ person, one who largely lives a moral life based on ethical principles and correlating actions. As such, I have no option other than to do whatever I can to end slavery in all its forms.

I currently hold the role of Chair and Managing Director of Konica Minolta Business Solutions Australia, a wholly owned subsidiary of a global Japanese technology company. The tech sector is one in which various human rights violations and slavery have been found; largely within manufacturing processes and often involving third party labour hire companies.

Globally, Konica Minolta is a member of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), a network of tech companies that collaborate on environmental and social governance standard setting. In Australia we are a distributor, as opposed to a manufacturer, and ordinarily that is where most companies stop. However, building on the good work of our parent company, we recognised that our value chain might also contain human rights risks.  So two years ago I started to investigate areas in which we might inadvertently be participating in human rights abuses here in Australia. I realised that we had never undertaken any due diligence, for example, as to how our uniforms were produced, nor explored the conditions for workers in our logistics supply chains, or even engaged commercial cleaning contractors in discussions regarding the pay and conditions for their staff.

I turned to the Walk Free Foundation established by Australian businessman Andrew Forest, for assistance. Shortly after, one of their researchers working in the emerging field of business and human rights relocated to Sydney, and she agreed to help set up Konica Minolta’s ethical sourcing work. It is quite likely that we are one of the few, if not only, mid-tier company in Australia (we have 500 people and a turnover of about $A250 million) who has a dedicated ethical sourcing and human rights manager. Since joining, Laura has worked across the business to produce a range of policies and strategies to assess and embed human rights due diligence in our Australian value chain. The cornerstone of this work is our Ethical Sourcing Roadmap, supported by our Supplier Code of Conduct and Human Rights Position Statement. These documents are open source and available on our website for any company also wishing to commence their journey.

We are holding supplier forums, conducting assessments and analysing the responses. Initial experiences indicate human rights due diligence is a new concept to our Australian suppliers so it is still very much only early days. Our philosophy is to work with suppliers to improve their human rights management systems.  Beyond the moral imperative, we have benefitted ourselves internally due to greater staff engagement expressed as a growing sense of pride in our company and advocacy for our brand. We have already seen an upturn in our success in acquiring new enterprise clients who have stated that they can identify strongly with our human rights position and the actions we have taken.  We also believe there will be long-term commercial benefits in terms of enduring and enhanced supplier relationships.  We certainly do not have all the answers, but we are a company that takes our responsibility to respect human rights very seriously. The task may seem overwhelming, but the important thing is to start. Then as business leaders, we can collectively play our part in ending modern slavery once and for all.

Dr David Cooke is Chair and Managing Director of Konica Minolta Business Solutions Australia.

Photo credit: Katie Orlinsky, Legatum Limited, 2017