Catholic Church Takes A Lead In The Eradication Of Global Slavery


The eradication of slavery around the globe is no small task. But a leading church in Australia is trying to make a dent, writes Matthew Clarke.

Last night, The Most Rev Anthony Fisher OP, Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, announced a suite of initiatives that make the Catholic Church a leading body in the drive to eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking in Australia.

The initiatives include a process to slavery-proof Archdiocesan supply chains, incorporating anti-slavery topics into the Catholic school curriculum, and equipping welfare services to support survivors of slavery. Archbishop Fisher encouraged the audience of about 500 to pursue compassion through both personal and organisational change, and through both prayer and action.

The announcement is another jigsaw piece within a growing alliance of religious and non-religious organisations responding to the unconscionable number of people forced into slavery – estimated to be about 40 million by the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Australian research by the Walk Free Foundation lead to the creation of the Global Freedom Network (GFN) in March 2014 with the goal of eradicating modern slavery through engagement with faith leaders around the world. Pope Francis was one of the first to sign the GFN’s Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders Against Modern Slavery, which committed the Catholic Church worldwide to using their institutional resources “for the freedom of all those who are enslaved and trafficked so that their future may be restored.”

Through the GFN, senior leaders across Christianity, Islam, Hindu, Buddhism and other faiths have made the same commitment. Australian religious leaders have been part of the movement through the formation of the Australian Freedom Network in December 2015.

Archbishop Fisher’s personal involvement is no surprise either. He has picked up the vision from Pope Francis and is working through the implications in his own backyard. He signalled his intentions in a statement to the NSW parliament in March last year and since then has handed over the detailed work to John McCarthy QC, a former Australian Ambassador to the Holy See.

McCarthy also has a history in anti-slavery advocacy: he was present in Rome at the inauguration of the Global Freedom Network, and has urged the NSW government to slavery-proof its own supply chain. At McCarthy’s right hand is Katherine Moloney, whose extensive experience and doctoral work ideally places her to navigate the complexities of the supply chain component of the initiative.


Not our problem?

Some may suppose that slavery is not a problem in Australia. In terms of the relative number of people enslaved we are certainly one of the safer places in the world, with credible researchers estimating there are probably around 4,300 slaves in Australia. Such estimates are difficult to validate because of the ambiguity of the term “slavery” and because most modern slavery is well concealed.

People do not need to be chained up or traded like property to be enslaved. What’s more central to the concept of modern slavery is the control over someone through force, coercion or deception, and the consequent removal of the person’s freedom to say ‘no’.

While I am sceptical of the claim that the root cause of slavery is the global political economy, the importance of supply and demand in the dynamics of slavery is undeniable. Australia does not have an easily exploitable underclass to the extent of some other countries and so we do not contribute a lot to the supply side of the equation. We do, however, have significant culpability on the demand side.

Australia imports goods through channels that encourage various forms of forced and exploited labour. Furthermore, Australia is a leading consumer of coerced sex services, often provided by minors, either through the internet or so-called ‘sex tourism’. That too is an expression of modern slavery, and one that deserves a separate discussion.

Our Australian contribution to eradicating slavery will be more about ending demand than preventing supply, which is why the emphasis on supply chains is appropriate in these new initiatives by the Catholic Church.


Will it succeed?

Supply chains are not the only target of Archbishop Fisher’s announcement. Including education and welfare in the announcement shows a commitment to a holistic rather than single-pronged strategy. The educational aspect ensures that people become more aware of the reality of slavery. The welfare aspect ensures that victims are cared for and reintegrated into ‘normal life’.

I have no affiliation with the Catholic Church but I applaud the leadership shown by this announcement. If the Sydney Archdiocese can achieve what it hopes to internally, then other Catholic dioceses will follow suit. If Catholic-owned schools, churches, welfare agencies and hospitals impose consistent and rigorous requirements on suppliers to prove that they and their sources do not exploit any workers, then a good deal of social pressure will be brought to bear on other players in those spaces to do the same.

Whether the Archbishop’s initiatives succeed remains to be seen. Can the sense of urgency be maintained so that the initiatives gain the necessary organisational momentum? Or will they be lost among the numerous other issues that lower-level bureaucrats and managers need to juggle?

A key hurdle to supply chain management is effective governance. Even with a generous serving of will, devolving real auditability downwards through multiple links in a supply chain does not have a huge history of success. Will the Church’s adoption of the Australian model of supply chain regulation be effective at uncovering weak or broken links when it is in the commercial interest of many parties to keep them hidden? If a break in the ethical chain is discovered, will the appropriate party be held accountable?

The initiatives could also be derailed by self-interest. How will Catholic hospitals respond if medicine and equipment cost more from slavery-audited suppliers than from their non-audited competitors? Will parents of Catholic school children be willing to pay slightly more for school uniforms to ensure that they are ethically sourced?

On the other hand, imagine if the Catholic precedent encourages other large organisations to do the same. Imagine if their example leads to state and federal governments applying the same principles to public services.

Coupling the announcement with a celebration of Mass was an apt reminder that hope springs from more than vision and will. A disruption to slavery’s supply and demand equation, increased social awareness, more effective detection and prosecution, carefully executed rescue and rehabilitation – all of these play a part.

But as Archbishop Fisher noted last night, a change of heart is also required. Closing the book on slavery may also depend on a miracle or two.

Matthew C. Clarke's career crosses academic, commercial and not-for-profit boundaries, specialising in the human impact of technology. Operating within the Christian peace-making tradition, Matthew has supported the work of justice and restoration particularly in the areas of slavery and poverty, through grass-roots community development and conflict resolution. He has post-graduate qualifications in cognitive science, science education and theology, and currently works as Senior Ministry Intelligence Analyst with the international development agency Compassion Australia.