Modern Slavery in cleaning supply chains

CAF has been recognised as a leading anti-slavery in supply chains initiative by business and human rights and corporate social responsibility experts. CAF Membership and Certification is at the cutting edge of human rights due diligence to address modern slavery risk. 

The term ‘modern slavery’ is only used to describe serious exploitation and exists at the extreme end of the worker exploitation continuum. Modern slavery does not include practices like substandard working conditions or underpayment of workers but these practices are also illegal and harmful and when left unchecked, these practices may also escalate into modern slavery.

CAF’s approach to addressing modern slavery is founded on the promotion of ‘decent work’ which is one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The infographic below situates decent work on the continuum of exploitation that encompasses modern slavery and dangerous or substandard working conditions.

CAF ExploitationContinuum FA WebStrip

Adapted from the Department of Home Affairs (2019) Commonwealth Modern Slavery Act 2018 Guidance for Reporting Entities.

How does CAF address Modern Slavery risk in cleaning supply chains?

The process of CAF Building Certification addresses modern slavery risk by working with entities at the top of the supply chain because procurers of cleaning services have significant power to determine the working conditions of cleaners, despite not being in an employment relationship with them. CAF’s assessment of labour standards at a building or precinct is centered on identifying dangerous or substandard working conditions and implementing best practice employment practices and supply chain conduct, therefore identifying indicators of modern slavery that may require investigation and remediation. 

The following are some hypothetical case studies based on real-life examples of modern slavery and worker exploitation that CAF has found through Building Certification. The case studies also highlight how CAF’s unique approach would assist to identify, address and prevent these practices. 

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Case study 1: Modern Slavery

Big Build is an Australian property company that builds and leases office space in major capital cities. Big Build uses a facilities management company, Middle Management, to procure and manage cleaning services at its office buildings. Middle Management was under instruction to keep cleaning costs down for Big Build, so the cleaning contract at 123 Big Street was awarded to Squeaky Clean, who put in one of the lowest bids. Big Build used the cost savings from this contract to improve end of trip facilities for tenants.

The cleaners employed by Squeaky Clean to work at 123 Big Street are all on temporary work visas and speak limited English. Most of the cleaners come from the same region and were recruited and promised accommodation by the supervisor before they arrived in Australia. At 123 Big Street, the supervisor closely monitors and directs cleaners’ activities and prevents them from speaking to the Middle Management facilities manager or to tenants of the building. Unbeknownst to Big Build or Middle Management, Squeaky Clean’s supervisor has confiscated the cleaners’ passports and is claiming the majority of their wages in a cash back scam as “payment” for inflated debts incurred during their travel to Australia and for their accommodation.

One tenant suspected something was wrong when he overheard the supervisor yelling at some cleaners one night when he was working late at the office and asked Middle Management to check that these workers were being treated fairly. When approached by Middle Management, Squeaky Clean’s area manager provided paperwork that suggested everything was in order: valid work visas, pay slips, bank transfers of wages for all cleaners registered to work at 123 Big Street. Middle Management was satisfied that no modern slavery was occurring.

Shortly thereafter, the tenant who suspected modern slavery noticed that the cleaners and the supervisor had disappeared and that a new group of cleaners had replaced them. There are a range of risk factors and indicators in this case study, which together suggest a situation of labour exploitation and coercion which may amount to modern slavery, such as debt bondage and deceptive recruiting. However, there will be no access to justice for these workers. 

If Big Build was involved in CAF Certification, a transparent and accountable procurement process would have reduced the risk of an under-priced cleaning contract being entered into at 123 Big Street. Middle Management would have received guidance on how to monitor and enforce compliance with the contractual terms, and Squeaky Clean would have their employment practices scrutinised both prior to the awarding of the contract and throughout the life of the contract. Importantly, the cleaners at 123 Big Street would have been able to speak to an independent third party about their conditions and receive support and access to justice. 

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Case study 2: serious labour exploitation, indicating conditions where modern slavery may arise

A construction company, Block Build, is contracted to undertake building works on a large government-owned site, Blue Square. Block Build contracts a cleaning company, Dirty Business, to provide cleaning services during the period of construction. Dirty Business is engaged to provide services at this site because the manager of this company is the brother-in-law of the construction company’s site manager. Block Build did not complete any research about Dirty Business’s financial viability or legal and regulatory compliance prior to engagement the company.

A group of 9 international students are engaged to work as cleaners for Dirty Business at this site. While the international students are technically employees, Dirty Business engages them as independent contractors in a sham contracting arrangement at a rate of $17/hour for 40 hours/week, with no insurance or entitlements. After four weeks of cleaning at the construction site, the cleaners have not received any pay. When they ask for their pay, Dirty Business’s manager shouts at them and falsely claims they are responsible for damage to the property and so they will not get any of their money, and that they are fired. Dirty Business’s manager tells the workers that if they call again asking for money, he will report them to the authorities and get them deported for working more than 40 hours per fortnight in breach of their visa restrictions.

The workers are afraid of being deported and so they cut their losses and find another cleaning job, also sham contracting and underpaid. Dirty Business’s manager posts an ad on an internet forum for international students and finds another group to work at Blue Square. It is likely that this next group of workers will not get paid either, and that they will be threatened if they ask for their pay.

In this case there are again a range of risk factors and indicators that suggest a situation of extreme labour exploitation. While the cleaners were free to leave their work, there were elements of threat and coercion, which are high risk factors for situations where modern slavery may flourish.

Workers who experience this type of modern slavery rarely have access to justice, as the workers are too afraid to come forward if they have worked more than the allowed hours. In many cases, they simply do not know who to approach. Some of these cases come to the attention of United Workers Union via referral from Church-based charities that migrant workers contact for foodbank assistance and can be assisted by the union, but most cases remain hidden.

If Block Build was involved in CAF Certification, a transparent and accountable procurement process would have reduced the risk of a cleaning contract being entered into without proper financial and human rights due diligence processes. Block Build would have received guidance on how to monitor and enforce compliance with the contractual terms, and Dirty Business would have had their employment practices scrutinised both prior to the awarding of the contract and throughout the life of the contract. Importantly, the cleaners at Blue Square would have been able to speak to an independent third party about their conditions and receive support and access to justice.

How is CAF’s approach different to standard Modern Slavery auditing methods?

CAF Certification can prevent incidents, such as those featured in the above case studies, because we take a more holistic approach than standard auditing methods. We combine social audits, meaningful worker engagement, and education and training for the whole supply chain. Our model is based on worker-driven social responsibility (WSR), which is a relatively new concept but one that is fast gaining traction globally as a best-practice supply chain management approach.

A worker-centric approach that puts cleaners at the heart of the cleaning supply chain.

Why consider CAF Membership and Building Certification?

Australia’s Modern Slavery Act requires that reporting entities respond to a set of mandatory criteria. Organisations that are involved with CAF either through Membership or certification can use this to respond to the mandatory criteria.

The Commonwealth’s Modern Slavery Act 2018 – Guidance for Reporting Entities recommends collaborating with civil society organisations and multi-stakeholder initiatives that are focused on addressing modern slavery risk as a means to strengthen your response. CAF offers our Members comprehensive support and guidance on how to include their involvement with CAF in their Modern Slavery Statements.  Find out how to become a Member.

Furthermore, CAF Building Certification in and of itself is tangible evidence that your organisation is addressing modern slavery risk in your cleaning supply chain. All stakeholders involved in CAF Building Certification benefit from fair and transparent pricing, quality cleaning and employment practices that eliminate the risk of exploitation and unfair competition. Furthermore, the lower the risk of modern slavery and exploitation in your supply chain, the lower the risk of reputational, legal and financial damage as a result of any regulatory or industrial action. Learn more about CAF Certification.