Labour Law and Consumer Choice

Reading this Daily Mail report of the September Slurpy day at 7-11, I have to confess surprise that there was not more fall out over the 7-11 slave labour story, which coincidentally aired on four corners less than a week ago.

When something really pushes our buttons, it’s incredible what can be achieved by the social voice, and there is no better example than the Alan Jones controversy in 2012.   By social media and consumer activism alone Jones was punished commercially for offensive comments about a politician.  It was remarkable and inspiring how much a united community voice could influence high level commercial activity.   But when it comes to more mundane  abuses, such as the rights of others in the workplace, we seem quite happy to push on regardless, especially if we are getting something at budget prices.

In many ways it correlates to Global trends in the fashion industry.  Very good work is being done by many on uncovering the origins of our fashion wear as a response to the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh.  With 1100 dead this is rated as the second worst industrial accident in world history.  Yet “where do our clothes come from” is not a question that is receiving much attention, other than around the fringes.  We all play our part in this economy that demands a constant supply of new, cheap clothing, but we rarely stop to think who is making them or under what conditions.  All we notice is how much they cost.    While we can watch Four corners,  aghast at the idea of workers anywhere in Australia being paid $5 per hour, we are not prepared to turn down our fish tank full of slurpy on September 1.

I’m not attempting to lay a guilt trip on consumers.  If I was, this would be hypocritical, because I’d be just as guilty.  A busy lifestyle gives little chance for choice, let alone fully researched ethical choices.   But modern Australia has settled into a strange paradigm.   Labour law activism has been part of our culture since the industrial revolution, yet  Consumer activism is almost non-existent.  Evermore in today’s society we see these elements sitting in conflict.  How much longer can we go on demanding legal impediments to exploitation on a governmental level, but create market demand for exploitation on a consumer level?  Something has to give somewhere.  I’m not suggesting this has to be started by consumers, but we need to be ready for change.


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Helen Carter

Helen has practised exclusively in employment and industrial law for over ten years and founded PCC Lawyers in 2010, having previously a partner of a leading Australian specialist workplace relations firm. She is an accredited specialist in Employment Law by the Law Society of New South Wales. Helen is a working mother who is committed to equal opportunities at work. She is a passionate sports fan, particularly in relation to NRL. Both of these are strong themes of this blog. Contact her here.


  1. It is disgraceful the way some vulnerable workers are treated. We also need, however, to be aware of the exploitation of workers overseas to allow very cheap products to be imported into Australia. I read a very interesting article this weekend about the “costs” of cheap school wear advertised by major retailers.

    • Helen Carter

      Danielle I agree. The tension between the interests of consumers and of employees of a business can unfortunately be quite real. As this is the area in which I have worked for a long time, I feel at times employees are overlooked in the media and elsewhere compared to consumers. With the recent Dick Smith administration there was rightly much concern about consumers who had lost money in gift vouchers and online orders. We must remembers though the many employees who suffer significantly when businesses collapse.

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