DURING a childhood spent on a remote pastoral station in Western Australia, “Aboriginal people were like family to me,” says Andrew Forrest, who would go on to amass a self-made fortune as one of Australia’s most successful miners.
“Seeing the sad things that happened to some of them in later life, and visiting vulnerable communities as I travelled, led me to direct my energy to finding parity not just for indigenous people but for all vulnerable Australians.”
Today Andrew, a national finalist for Australian of the Year 2017, has stepped back from the day-to-day running his Fortescue Metals Group to focus not only on ending disparity in Australia, but drawing attention to — and liberating — the estimated 46 million people who are trapped in modern slavery around the globe. And he wants to do it in his lifetime.
With such ambitious targets, it’s fair to say that Andrew — who has pledged to give away the overwhelming majority of his wealth — is now as well known for his hands-on commitment to philanthropy as he is for his success in business.
“My wife Nicola and I established the Minderoo Foundation 15 years ago, driven by our passion for helping those most in need — in Australia in particular or wherever our Australian culture of a ‘fair go’ and our personal personality mix might make a positive difference in peoples’ lives,” he says.
“We focus on vulnerable people and communities through giving them a hand up rather than a hand out.”
Andrew’s interest in eradicating slavery was sparked when his eldest daughter Grace volunteered in a Nepalese orphanage. “We became aware of the horrific business of child trafficking when visiting Nepal,” says Andrew.
When he looked deeper into slavery, Andrew was shocked by what he found. “Including awful examples of forced labour in the very supply chains of my company, Fortescue Metals Group,” he says. “That’s what really tipped me over the edge to adding modern slavery to ending the indigenous disparity in Australia as my lifetime work.”
In 2010 the Forrests established the Walk Free Foundation as a vehicle to help achieve that goal. “My learnings about modern slavery prompted Fortescue to put policies and systems in place business-wide that ensured a zero tolerance for slavery in our supply chain,” he explains.
“I now work hard to encourage other companies around the world to go looking for slavery — what they find might shock them — but it’s the first step in helping to end some of the heinous crimes against humanity that are occurring.”
While he remains in the Fortescue Metals loop as non-executive chairman, 90 per cent of Andrew’s time is now taken up by philanthropy.
“Most days I wake up thinking of those millions of people being subjected to horrific forms of abuse through slavery, and wondering what more I can be doing,” he says
“I also think long and hard about our vulnerable Australians. As a nation we are only as good as how we treat our most disadvantaged citizen, and we need to be doing all we can to ensure all Australians are healthy and educated.
“This has to be through education, opportunity and employment while strongly steering people away from drugs and alcohol. When those two substances are in the picture more than the first three, the first three don’t ever have a chance. Nor will the individual.”
Andrew is the first to admit his goals are unashamedly big ones. “I would like to see the end of modern slavery in all of its insidious forms,” he says. “This is going to take a collaborative effort from governments, business and civil society.
“Governments around the world can start by enacting legislation that is similar to the UK’s groundbreaking Modern Slavery Act 2015. I am strongly encouraging our own government to follow suit.
“Companies can and must examine their supply chains and do all they can to eliminate the slavery that exists in so many of them. Civil society must have a zero tolerance for human rights abuses.”
Despite the weight of expectation such ambitions creates, Andrew is ever-positive in his outlook.
“We live in a beautiful, safe and prosperous country, with endless opportunities,” he says. “I get excited by the possibility of changing the lives of vulnerable indigenous Australians for the better. And building companies that are strong, sustainable and free of modern slavery in their supply chains.”
CommBank has been a proud partner of the Australian of the Year Awardsfor over 37 years, celebrating and championing those who make our country a better place. The awards honour an extraordinary group of respected Australians, whose actions inspire conversation on issues of national importance.