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Eradication of slavery is an economic imperative: Andrew Forrest

Andrew Forrest speaks about slavery in modern-day context and why businesses around the world need to take note

New Delhi: Andrew Forrest, non-executive chairman and former chief executive of Australian iron ore company Fortescue Metals Group, is the driving force behind the Global Freedom Network that aims to eradicate ‘modern-day slavery’. According to the Global Slavery Index 2014 published by the Walk Free Foundation, 14.2 million people in India are victims of forced labour and human trafficking. The global figure stands at 35.8 million.

The Global Freedom Network on Thursday joined hands with 10 leaders of different faiths in New Delhi to sign a joint declaration to end slavery within a generation.

Forrest, in an interview, spoke about how he came to be involved with the cause, slavery in modern-day context and why businesses around the world need to take note. Edited excerpts:

Slavery is a strong word and has denoted a certain type of exploitation over the centuries which might not hold true anymore. How do we define it in the modern day context?

As soon as someone cannot leave their job, then they are very likely to match the definition of slavery. If you extend that a bit, you have debts that you can’t repay, that’s bonded labour. You forced every day to work, you can’t leave, that’s slavery. Sexual slavery. My father borrowed money and you have to repay those debts…all of these things can be broken down into do you have the freedom to leave? And when the question cannot be answered easily then you know you are looking at slavery.

How did your attention get diverted to this particular social evil?

When I discovered, through my daughter Grace, a very big trafficking network out of Nepal, through India, all the way to the Middle East for sexual exploitation purposes, it shook me to my core. My daughter had worked in an orphanage, the children there had been rescued and they bore the scars. When I discovered that they were children finding their way to the Middle East in the most awful circumstances, that’s when I decided to do something. I also searched the supply chain in my own company and we have thousands of supplies all over the world, I found at least 10 highly suspect cases. I went to a big British company who is providing my company with a lot of goods and the chief executive of this big listed company, he knew nothing about it. He dug into his supply chain and there it was.

What do you make of the situation in India, which according to the Global Slavery Index has the highest number of ‘slaves’?

I have been coming to India for three decades. I have seen slavery in every country I have been to. What excited me are the hope and the faith I see here. There isn’t a politician in your country or a corporate leader who I have spoke to who has looked me in the eye and said “actually I think modern slavery is okay". Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who I have met long time ago…he is lifting the economy every way he can but he does not want to leave people behind. I became really passionate about this when I saw the hope out in the country, in the stone quarries, in the textile trade, in the brick kilns. First time in 30 years that I have been coming here I have seen hope that ‘we are not farm animals, we are not here forever, from 80 year old grandfathers to 8 year old grand-daughters, they gave me the same message; we can be freed or we have been freed. I am seeing a ripple across India and I am trying to spread the word through religious leaders…if India can give people hope then every country can. That’s why I think corporations and governments will all support end slavery because there is no example in the world where slavery hasn’t come to an end, where the economy hasn’t grown significantly, not a little bit but significantly. And when you remove slavery from a family, from a community, the economy and the wealth of that community grows. Eradication of slavery is an economic imperative, not just a humanitarian issue.

What is the role big businesses and corporate can play in eradicating the world of ills?

We (businesses) have a licence to operate that has been given by the people. Our care for the people must be complete. There is no situation I can think of where a child should not have education. There is no situation I can think of where a business person hasn’t got by without the help of the people. I have gotten to where I am because of the Chinese people (Forrest has mining interests apart from exporting beef to the country), the Asian people buying my products. I am indebted to them. Every business people must remember that they are where they are because people gave them their wealth by buying their products. They deserve the wealth but never forget that it’s people who put you there and you need to care for them.

You have got spiritual and religious leaders to issue a declaration against slavery. Religion doesn’t enjoy a great reputation internationally these days so why this move?

Across the world religion touches people and very much so in India. Particularly in the further reaches of society where the law may not be as powerful as we can see around here, religion still speaks and it is in those backwaters, those crevices that slave masters operate, where they prey on the ignorance of people who don’t know their rights that we can get the message across through faith leaders.

Is your philanthropic work here going to be followed by business investments?

I have real faith in India. As an international businessman I have been asked, ‘will I invest?’ Yes, if there is opportunity that can be scaled up. It will be satirical of me to say I am here only to fight slavery, I think it’s a great country. I am here with my heart and soul.

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