Andrew Forrest’s contradictions run deep. The mining billionaire who made his fortune exporting iron ore to China’s high-polluting steel mills has today slammed oil and gas companies for being climate “fossils”.
But the contradictions don’t stop there. Forrest’s biggest act of cognitive dissonance is his stance on modern slavery, and it’s a position that is getting harder to defend.
The billionaire has made it his mission to stamp out slavery around the world through his philanthropic vehicle, Minderoo, which helps finance anti-exploitation programs.
Yet this week Forrest’s Fortescue Metals edged closer to a deal to invest in a green hydro plant worth $100 billion in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) — a country that, according to Minderoo, has a serious problem with forced labour.
The deal with the DRC would see Fortescue back the world’s largest hydro power project — a big win for Forrest, whose latest global project is building so-called green power projects around the world as an alternative to Fortescue’s traditional commodities business.
And while it would be a massive injection of cash for the deeply troubled African nation, advocates say it also threatens to undermine even further Forrest’s ubiquitous campaign against slavery.
DRC has a serious problem when it comes to the exploitation of workers. According to Mindaroo’s Walk Free report from 2018, it ranks 12th on the list of the world’s worst offenders. The problem is particularly bad in the country’s resources sector, where up to 61% of gold mine workers in one region were affected by forced labour. Walk Free also gives the DRC government’s response to slavery the second lowest rating available.
Forrest has spent the last year jetting around the world to more than 47 countries as part of his efforts to turn Fortescue “green”. Among the other countries he’s signed deals with are Afghanistan and PNG, which are ranked 5th and 21st respectively on Minderoo’s slavery index.
Forrest’s silence over another of Fortescue’s big trading partners — China — and its treatment of its Uyghur population, as reported in Crikey, has also caused friction with Australian Uyghur advocates who say it shows Forrest is reluctant to practice what he preaches.
Dr Katie Hepworth, director of workers’ rights at the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR), says Fortescue’s latest deal with the DRC shows that Forrest is willing to make public pledges to end slavery while also doing deals with countries that ignore — or even encourage — slavery.
“What it shows is a total lack of understanding of how to mitigate modern slavery risk,” she said.
“We know just prohibiting it is not enough. Companies cannot rely on countries to eradicate modern slavery, they need to do their own due diligence.”
Forrest is adamant the deals with foreign governments include clauses that force them to address slavery and report on corruption. Forrest has previously said a deed of agreement with the DRC contains “commitments to the eradication of modern slavery”’ and an agreement to drive equal education outcomes for boys and girls.
He told Crikey it was “impossible to eliminate modern slavery in a country without deep engagement in that country”.
“The hard truth is that looking away and turning a blind eye to crime and human suffering empowers the perpetrator and prosecutes the victim.
“We are proud that our investment contracts are the first to place human rights, environment, and then economics (in that order) in every discussion we have with every government in the world.”
But Hepworth says such agreements are not enough.
“Investors must interrogate where the money is going. They cannot rely on corrupt governments to do the work for them,” she said.
The issue is a problem for Forrrest’s legitimacy as a credible campaigner against slavery. At the heart of it is an obvious contradiction for one of Australia’s richest and most powerful people. On the one hand he professes to want to stamp out slavery and on the other he is doing deals with countries that condone it. Logic would suggest he can’t do both.