FASHION REVOLUTION: GRACE FORREST

Ethical trading has been an important focus for us since 2008… What this means is that we make sure that, among other things, manufacturers we work with look after their employees and pay them correctly. So we were thrilled when activist and friend of Ginger & Smart, Grace Forrest, agreed to talk to us about the reality of modern slavery.

Grace Forrest, co-director and founder of the Walk Free Foundation and UN Association of Australia goodwill ambassador for anti-slavery, is fearlessly tackling a frightening reality: 40 million people live in some form of slavery across the world. For the uninitiated, modern slavery is an umbrella term including forced marriage, forced labour, debt bondage, domestic servitude, human trafficking organ trafficking and imposed forced labour. It also disproportionately affects the world’s most vulnerable people. And Grace is calling for corporations and consumers alike to face the enmeshed reality of modern slavery within fashion.   

We were lucky enough to have Grace breakdown these complex issues for us:

What was the catalyst for your anti-slavery crusade?

I first encountered the term child sex trafficking when I was 14 years old. I remember having to read the sentence a few times, as the combination of words just didn’t make sense to me. I was aware of paedophilia and child sex abuse - dark realities described in hushed tones by adults – but where did trafficking come into it? And why did it ominously imply more than one child?

When I was 15 I had the opportunity to go on a school service trip. There I met and worked with children, some as young as three, who had been rescued from child sex trafficking. This experience fundamentally shifted my perspective of the world and my understanding of my place in it. How was it possible I was meeting girls my age, who had grown up in circumstances unimaginable to me, while I had been raised in safe and sunny Australia?

Adults assured me that this was something very rare, that only happened in dark corners of the globe. But I couldn’t accept that this could happen at all. Horrifyingly, only two years later I returned to that same institution to find almost every child I had worked with had disappeared without a trace. A practice we soon learned was all too common in the orphanage sector – and the reason why Walk Free now works with groups like Lumos. I learnt the hard way that for every child rescued out of trafficking or slavery, another one would go in. It is one of the most profitable organised crimes in the world. Where the value of individual life is completely overshadowed by the demand for the ‘product’.

Walk Free was established that same year, with the goal to end modern slavery – in all its forms – in our lifetime. We are an international human rights group that works with government, business, civil society, religious leaders and academia to tackle modern slavery in every country and supply chain in the world. Modern slavery is an umbrella term to describe several highly exploitative practices, ranging from forced marriage to forced labour. It describes any situation where one person is exploited by another, for personal or financial gain.

We are in awe of your passion and achievements at such a young age. What drives you? Why do you think you have been able to draw global attention to the issue of modern slavery?

Thank you!

I think what drives me is that the fate of a little girl in one country (or community) can be so horrifyingly different to another’s. It’s a genetic lottery. When I was faced with such a stark reality as a teenager, I couldn’t turn my back on it.

I am fortunate to have been surrounded by strong mentors throughout my life. My parents, my grandparents, my teachers, and friends. They’ve shaped me as a person and strengthened my conviction that I can make a difference. More to the point, I feel like it is my responsibility to try.

The Walk Free team (80 per cent of which happens to be women) also inspires me daily. It is because of their tireless work and research that I can play a part in shining a light on the invisible victims of modern slavery.

What do everyday individuals need to know about modern slavery, especially its involvement in the global fashion industry?

Despite our advancement as a species, there are more people living in slavery today than any other time in human history. In 2016 there were 40 million people living in slavery throughout the world, that is more than double the number involved in the transatlantic slave trade. Over the last five years we estimate that just under 90 million people have experienced some form of slavery (Global Slavery Index, 2018).

Modern slavery is a first-world problem. It’s an issue that we’re all exposed too and potentially contribute to every day. Through the clothes on our back, the coffee we drink in the morning or the device you’re reading this on.

Modern slavery touches every country and every industry. The fashion industry is particularly high risk because of the lack of transparency in global supply chains, and the rising demand for ‘fast fashion’.

Sadly, it is commonplace for us to hear about well-known retailers with factories where adults and children are exploited. The 2018 Global Slavery Index puts fashion as one of the top five most vulnerable industries to modern slavery. With fashion supply chains more at risk from highly exploitative work conditions than almost any other industry.

You are the youngest ever goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Association of Australia, whose aim is to promote Australia’s human rights and peace programs, and the UN’s stand against slavery. Can you outline this role to date?

My role as a UNAA Goodwill Ambassador is to represent the anti-slavery movement and the work it does in Australia and surrounding regions. We aim to educate and empower people to understand the role we play in sustainable development and peace building within our communities, country and around the world.

Slavery and human trafficking aren’t just serious challenges in the field of human rights.They are also major obstacles for regional stability, sustainable economic growth, and gender equality. Women and girls make up more than 70 per cent of all victims. I believe modern slavery is one of the greatest feminist challenges of our time

Part of my role is also to promote the importance of institutions like the United Nations in building and maintaining peace and human rights for all. This can range from school presentations to speaking in parliament house. Walk Free has worked in partnership with UN institutions to measure and understand global slavery for many years. Most significantly we worked with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to produce the Global Estimates on Modern Slavery in 2018.

Is there anything practical that everyday people can do to help abolish modern slavery?

Absolutely. I think the first thing to remember is that slavery is 100 per cent a man made problem.

It is up to each of us to be informed and responsible for our human footprint. This can be as simple as choosing fair-trade coffee or downloading the GoodOnYou app to learn about the human rights ratings of your favourite brands.

Knowledge is power – most of us have been tricked into thinking that it’s normal not to know who made our clothes. However, it’s in these intricate global supply chains, that exploitation happens.

No one wants to buy things that caused another human being harm. Research the businesses you buy from and ask them how they are working to ensure their supply chains are cruelty and slavery-free. Legislation such as the Australian Modern Slavery Act will soon make this process easier.

What are the objectives of Walk Free and what have you accomplished thus far?

Walk Free is focused on ending modern slavery in our generation. We pioneer new approaches, invest in important projects, and carry out research that reinforces the need for change and explains how people can make the greatest impact.

Walk Free is the creator of the Global Slavery Index, the world’s leading data set on measuring and understanding slavery, which informs international law and legislation. We are also the founder of the Global Freedom Network, which brings together the world’s religions against slavery, 

Walk Free is the non-government secretariat of the Bali Process Government and Business forum. A coalition of 45 member states of the Asia Pacific, and the region’s most powerful business leaders, coming together to work on transnational crime and regional vulnerability to slavery.

We also partner directly with like-minded organisations to liberate people trapped in slavery around the world. Walk Free co-founded the Freedom Fund in 2014, a frontline organisation working on the ground to liberate victims of modern slavery. In India, the Freedom Fund documented an astonishing 80 per cent reduction in slavery prevalence in target communities after just five years of operations. In my opinion, it is one of the greatest examples of grassroots, community-driven change we have in the anti-slavery space.

In 2018 together with Yeonmi Park, the Walk Free team published some of the first research on slavery in North Korea, drawing global attention to the systemic abuse in that country.

That same year Walk Free successfully campaigned for the implementation of an Australian Modern Slavery Act, and was awarded the first ever GQ Humanitarian Award by GQ Australia. 

You found a sympathetic ear in Pope Francis, who in 2014 agreed to host a gathering of the world’s religious leaders at the Vatican to sign a pledge to eradicate slavery by 2020. Describe that experience for us and the resulting actions from it?

It was incredibly powerful to witness the world’s religious leaders, across Christian, Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim faiths, come together to pledge to eradicate modern slavery. It’s easy to focus on our differences as humans, but ultimately there are many more things that bind us together in our shared humanity - the greatest of which I believe, is our fundamental right for freedom. Religious leaders from around the world, coming together to sign a declaration against modern slavery was a huge moment in the practical fight against modern slavery. It was the first time in human history all these eminent leaders had been in one room, let alone signed the same document – and the fact that is was to declare that in no corner of any faith could slavery be justified made it even more powerful. A symbol of true global unity to protect our world’s most vulnerable people.

With the teachings of various faiths reaching up to 90 per cent of the world’s population, there is arguably no greater way to reach people across the globe.

Since that day, the momentum has continued with signings of the Book of Declaration here in Australia, India, Indonesia, Argentina, Colombia and most recently in New Zealand.

Walk Free is the producer of the Global Slavery Index — now in its fourth edition, providing the world’s leading measurement of slavery. What can we learn from this?

The Global Slavery Index is the leading data set on measuring and understanding modern slavery in the world. Now in its fourth edition, the Global Slavery Index measures forced marriage, human trafficking and forced labour across every region in the world, in over 160 countries. It also rates Government response to slavery, the effectivity of that response, and the economic import responsibility of the world’s most powerful nations (the G20) have on slavery trends and industry vulnerability.

Everything Walk Free does is built on a solid foundation of research, and the Global Slavery Index is the cornerstone of this. It underpins both international and domestic laws, as well as SDG’s associated with human trafficking, forced labour, and forced marriage. The index not only helps hold governments to accounts, it identifies trends and at-risk regions and it is a vital tool to measure progress towards our ultimate goal of eliminating slavery.

Australia under the Turnbull government passed the Modern Slavery Act in 2018. Can you tell us what this means and what repercussions it has had?

The passing of the Modern Slavery Act in Australia indicates at a fundamental level that our government is willing to take a leadership role in tackling modern slavery. It also sends a clear signal to businesses that they are accountable for ensuring they identify and act against slavery practices in their supply chains. But it is only the first step. Businesses will be required to report on their actions later this year, and that will be the first real test of the impact of the Act. I hope this will drive greater demand for transparency and ethical business practices - not only from our government, but from consumers who care about the people behind the products they buy every day.

At GINGER & SMART we have a moral obligation to the people who make our garments to provide a living wage, healthy working hours, a safe hygienic workplace, protection of the environment, prohibition of forced labour, and elimination of child labour. We have personally visited and inspected many of our off-shore manufacturers. All our off-shore manufacturers have been inspected independently receiving high ratings for worker’s conditions, pay and practices by well recognised bodies such as WRAP (Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production), Intertex, Sgt Group and Sedex. For more on our SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY MANDATE please click here.

Photo Credit: Benjamin Horgan, Minderoo foundation