Modern Slavery and the discursive construction of a propertied freedom: Evidence from Australian business

Edward Wray-Bliss*, Grant Michelson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This paper examines the ethics of the Australian business community’s responses to the phenomenon of modern slavery. Engaging a critical discourse approach, we draw upon a data set of submissions by businesses and business representatives to the Australian government’s Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade ‘Parliamentary Inquiry into Establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia’—which preceded the signing into law of Australia’s Modern Slavery Act 2018—to examine the business community’s discursive construction in their submissions of the ethical–political concept of freedom. The paper shows how the concept of freedom was employed by Australian business in a manner that privileged their own subject status and advocated for legislation with minimal burden. Relating this contemporary case to a longer historical context, we show how Australian business responses towards modern slavery map onto liberal and neoliberal ethics in which the freedom of the propertied takes precedent over that of the property-less. Further, we show discursive similarities in the arguments presented by modern Australian businesses and certain historical efforts by members of the business community to privilege commercial freedoms in responses to 18th and 19th Century abolitionist movements. Overall, our research makes two important contributions: first, it highlights the value of a critical discourse lens in business ethics research to show how business and other stakeholders in the field construct and shape their own and other’s ethically-laden understanding of reality; and second, it presents a case for considerable scepticism about the motivation of (Australian) business to employ the freedoms made available to it under neo/liberal discourse to confront a key human rights challenge.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Business Ethics
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 4 Jun 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature B.V.

Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Australia
  • Discursive analysis
  • Freedom
  • Modern slavery
  • Neoliberalism
  • Parliamentary inquiry
  • Property rights


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