Two years on and Andrew Forrest’s anti-slavery organisation has a global activist movement of seven million – and growing.
Started and fully funded by Andrew and Nicola Forrest, Walk Free aims to eradicate all forms of slavery around the world.
Despite an estimated 30 million trapped in some form of slavery, the issue rarely gets air play in Australia.
But it should.
In Seoul, South Korea, this week, I attended the delivery of Walk Free’s global petition signed by 228,000 to Daewoo International. Whilst Australians know Daewoo as car manufacturers, they are also the world’s largest processor of slave labour picked Uzbek cotton.
Walk Free’s Senior Campaigner, Jayde Bradley calls the practice “the systematic abuse of an entire country”. For decades, the Uzbekistan government has forced adults and children from workplaces, homes and schools to work in the fields for two months of every year under appalling conditions. Those who refuse are expelled from school, fired from their jobs, and denied public benefits or worse.
According to Walk Free, eleven citizens forced to pick cotton in Uzbekistan’s last harvest lost their lives. The tragic losses included Tursunali Sadikov, a 63-year-old farmer who died of a heart attack after being beaten by an official of the Department of Internal Affairs, and Amirbek Rakhmatov, a six-year-old schoolboy who accompanied his mother to the cotton fields, napped in a trailer, and suffocated when cotton was loaded on top of him.
Daewoo has continued doing business in Uzbekistan even after publicly acknowledging that the Uzbek government uses forced labour to produce the cotton it buys and processes.
Recently, a random post on Walk Free’s Facebook page asked, “why should I care? Slavery doesn’t impact me.”
And you might be thinking the same.
Soon, global retail giants H&M and Zara will open in Perth. They are now part of 100 other well-known world brands and companies that have refused to use Uzbek cotton.
But it took a good deal of pressure and work by a number of anti-slavery organisations.
Ms Bradley says corporations are Walk Free’s primary target. “We find that many companies genuinely don’t know slavery exists in their supply chain. Once it is bought to their attention, companies are typically willing to take action”.
“If we raise awareness with corporations and consumers, we can change behaviour”, she says.
In 2012, a number of anti-slavery organisations mobilised customers on the streets of New York to spread the word about the ‘Zara campaign’. Volunteers talked to shoppers about the industry wide boycott of cotton from Uzbekistan. Shoppers were asked to pose for a photo with a message for Zara to join the boycott of slave cotton.
And this is how it impacts you. As the buyer of products, you have a power when combined with millions of others around the world, to force the end of such practices.
Andrew and Nicola Forrest’s objective is mighty ambitious by any measure but the growing momentum, awareness and positive change his Walk Free team has created indicates there is cause for great optimism.