For anyone who might be looking for evidence of the effectiveness of market-driven initiatives in tackling labour exploitation, seven features of the Fels’ Panel inquiry into wage fairness within the Australian 7-Eleven franchise are worth noting.
- The inquiry was not a regulatory enforcement action; it was the franchisor’s independent initiative.
- It was set up in response to media exposure and market pressure.
- It was led by a panel of consumer experts (rather than industrial relations experts) and equipped with forensic accounting support.
- Unlike FWO prosecutions, which were individualised to franchisee/employers (seven prosecutions since 2009), it was able to take a whole-of-franchise approach under purpose-built terms of reference.
- It was able to do more than simply address the symptoms of exploitation; it had the ability to examine a business model that was thought to be contributing to that exploitation.
- Unlike the three-year Baiada Chicken Inquiry conducted by the FWO, it accomplished its primary tasks in just six months, with some 2,800 workers receiving a total of almost $10 million in compensation for underpayments.
- It achieved its outcomes with the co-operation of the 7-Eleven franchise.
Whilst the final report is still to be released and it might not all be a case of “happy endings”; the success so far achieved by the Fels Inquiry does evidence the potential of market-driven initiatives to address labour exploitation in ways that effectively complement existing regulation of wage standards.