Groundbreaking investigations are sparking change by exposing labour abuses that often occur undetected but “in plain sight”,  journalists at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference have heard.

Over 40 million people are exploited through modern slavery worldwide, and according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) many workers are enticed into abusive employment relationships through false promises about working conditions. Coercive tactics involving threats of punishment are also common in these relationships.

Contemporary slavery takes many forms including forced labour, debt bondage and human trafficking. While this can occur in lower-scaled private employment, it is pervasive in the supply chains of larger corporations.

The murkiness of supply chains today makes it really easy for companies to claim ignorance.

Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist Robin McDowell said detecting these practices could be difficult in complex supply chains. This, she added increased the challenge of holding companies accountable.

“The murkiness of supply chains today makes it really easy for companies to claim ignorance,” said McDowell.

To combat this dilemma she suggests journalists conduct their investigations intricately by connecting the dots throughout the supply chain.

“Doing a dot to dot is the one way you can force [companies] and governments to address it.”

Last year McDowell, in collaboration with Margie Mason uncovered serious human rights abuses on palm oil plantations in South East Asia. They found cases of slavery, forced child-labour and sexual assault on several plantations owned by one of the biggest palm oil producers, Sime Darby Plantation Berhad.

The investigation led the US to ban imports from the Malaysian company.

Annie Kelly, editor of the Rights and Freedoms Reporting Project at The Guardian said: “It’s this idea of exposing the truth of the worst forms of labour exploitation happening in plain sight all around us.”

For Kelly, the most effective investigations are the ones framed around the specific goal of achieving change. She said the initial questions journalists should ask themselves included: “Will this investigation hold power to account and could it have some form of positive impact or change?”

In her opinion, The Guardian‘s investigation into the abuse of Nepali workers in Qatar was one of their “most impactful”.

“In terms of impact, this investigation has probably had the longest tail of any work that we’ve done and we’re still publishing stories almost 10 years on,” she added.

Qatar’s announcement in 2010 to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup galvanised the investigation as an influx of migrants entered the country seeking work on new construction sites for the event. However, the story began in Nepal where a correspondent from The Guardian witnessed droves of dead bodies returning from Qatar.

“He literally spent six weeks counting coffins coming back from the gulf and [was] just trying to understand the potential loss of life that was happening due to dangerous and exploitative working conditions in Qatar,” Kelly said.

The report series has since sparked reforms to Qatar’s Kafala laws which denied migrant workers protections under domestic labour laws. The Kafala system authorised local employers’ significant control over their employee’s visa status and allowed restrictions on movement and autonomy.

“Not enough has been done but I don’t think Qatar can now ever deny that it has an issue with migrant worker rights. When we first went to them they had no concept of what that meant,” said Kelly.

In Australia the federal Criminal Code prohibits people from engaging in modern slavery practices.

Earlier this year a Sydney couple were sentenced for charges relating to the forced labour of a domestic worker from the Philippines. The court found the couple restricted the woman’s movement, coerced her through threats, overworked and underpaid her.

A screenshot of an article about labour abuse in Qatar.

Screenshot from the Human Trafficking and Forced Labour Webinar held during the Global Investigative Journalism Conference

Between June 2020 and 2021 the Australian Federal Police received 208 reports of human trafficking and slavery cases.

Reports from Anti-Slavery Australia estimate over 1,900 victims of modern slavery. The most prevalent forms being forced marriage and labour exploitation. However, they indicate only one in five cases are detected.

While these cases are often found in lower-scaled employment, the Modern Slavery Act regulates larger corporate supply chains.

The Act requires Australian companies earning over $100 million to report on the risks of slavery in their operations and supply chains. However, there is little oversight and regulation of international imports.

In June this year Senator Rex Patrick introduced a Bill seeking to ban the importation of goods produced through forced labour.

The explanatory memorandum refers to the exploitation of Uyghurs in Chinese factories, but explains the Bill’s purpose to prohibit imports from any country where the practice occurs.

The proposed legislation was initially rejected by the coalition and is now in its third draft before the lower house.

Main images Unsplash/Johannes Krupinski.