Modern Slavery

Published on Wed 12 September 2018 6:42pm

It’s estimated that modern slavery could be the circumstances that face somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 people in Australia. Worldwide, it affects more than 40 million—some estimate close to 50 million. It is sobering to think that more people are trapped in slavery today than there have been at any other time in human history.

Mr Wilson (6:42pm) — I support the Modern Slavery Bill 2018. More particularly, I support the amendment moved by the shadow minister for justice, the member for Hotham. Clearly, there’s broad support for this bill because we want a legislative framework in place to combat the scourge of modern slavery. I particularly support the amendment moved by the shadow minister for justice because it adds some sensible, constructive changes that will ensure that this bill and its framework will implement stronger and more effective action. It’s the sort of thing that I’d like to think the government would consider. I’ll come to the detail of some of that in a moment.

The theme of what I have to say is almost in the vein of ‘so close and yet so far’. It’s great that we’ve finally reached this point, but it’s a shame that there are some very significant shortcomings. Labor has pushed for action to combat modern slavery for some time. It was more than a year ago that we committed to a modern slavery act. It’s good that the government has seen fit to follow along, although not in the way that it could if it were really serious about getting some sort of change, both within Australia and other countries that Australian companies use for the purposes of their supply chains.

As others have said, the government’s bill imposes a reporting requirement on entities with consolidated revenue of more than $100 million. It includes an obligation to make public on an annual basis action taken to address modern slavery risks by companies in their operations and supply chains. It also creates a modern slavery business engagement unit within the Department of Home Affairs.

The bill follows in the wake, to some degree, of the commitment that Labor made. More particularly, it follows from the inquiry undertaken by the Foreign Affairs and Aid Subcommittee of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. Like the member for Canning, I recognise that work. The report of the inquiry was called Hidden in plain sight: an inquiry into establishing a Modern Slavery Act inAustralia. I congratulate the chair, the member for Dunkley, and the deputy chair, the member for Wakefield.

It is worth thinking carefully and closely about what addressing modern slavery really means. ‘Modern slavery’ describes circumstances in which a person is compelled to work through some kind of coercion or is trafficked for work and in other ways exploited for their labour. It describes circumstances in which a person is inevitably deprived of their liberty, deprived of their basic human rights and often—I would say in many cases—subjected to abuse, mistreatment, violence, danger and of course the denial of proper wages and conditions.

It’s estimated that modern slavery could be the circumstances that face somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 people in Australia. Worldwide, it affects more than 40 million—some estimate close to 50 million. It is sobering to think that more people are trapped in slavery today than there have been at any other time in human history.

It’s not hard to imagine the kinds of people who are typically prey to those who practise and profit from modern slavery. They’re people who are vulnerable. They’re people who are subject to coercion and can be threatened, who can be motivated by the application of force or some other kind of advantage. Children, women, migrants, refugees, people in seasonal work, people in regional and remote areas, seafarers—these are the kinds of people who are at risk of experiencing modern slavery. People in countries without effective governance and regulation, people in countries without strong unions and other civil society organisations—these are the kinds of people who are at risk of being victims of modern slavery.

For all those reasons, our response has to look well beyond our own shores. As I said, it may be 5,000 to 10,000 people here; it’s more than 40 million people elsewhere. That’s why there needs to be an appropriate obligation on Australian companies to interrogate and be vigilant about the reality of the work practice in their supply chains. I note one of the comments from the Human Rights Law Centre in relation to the parliamentary inquiry:

We’ve heard horrific stories of abuse linked to some of Australia’s biggest brands. Burmese migrants chained … to Thai fishing boats supplying the seafood we eat. Australian surf wear made in North Korean sweatshops.

Those are just two examples of the way in which Australian companies can unwittingly be involved in and effectively support practices that constitute modern slavery. It picks up the title of the committee inquiry report, which was Hidden in plain sight. I think very few Australians as they go about their lives, when they get dressed and put on a T-shirt that’s made in Thailand or open a can of tuna that is sourced from somewhere else, would think that, inherent in that aspect of their daily life, is quite extraordinary suffering of someone else; that, in order for them to get the tuna at the price they get it or the unbelievably cheap cotton T-shirt, the value is extracted from another human being, a value in terms of their labour and worse—that their liberty is infringed upon; that they suffer in all of the kinds of ways that humans can bring other humans to suffer.

We do need to recognise that, as the world becomes more globally interlinked and companies seek to make extended supply chains part of how they are competitive and successful in our country, the push to be competitive and efficient and to take advantage of those kinds of global opportunities does come with an inherent risk. If, as an Australian company, you come to know of an opportunity that is attractive to you because the labour costs involved seem to be too good to be true, or part of your product or enterprise relies on a good or a service that is labour-intensive and the price of that good or service seems too good to be true, it probably is. It probably is too good to be true, in the sense that it may well rely on the kinds of practices that we regard as modern slavery.

I would just make a side observation, separate to this bill. I think if we are serious about modern slavery, we have to go well beyond the reporting requirements that this bill places on Australian companies—and the extent to which they actually place those on Australian companies is something I’ll come back to—and look at things like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which, as a modern trade and investment agreement, does include some labour standards and environmental standards—but they are weak. They are standards that are not capable of being enforced. There are mechanisms within those agreements that provide oversight, transparency and compliance but the consequences for noncompliance are non-existent.

We have to think about the fact that Australia doesn’t presently have a debarment policy that operates at the national level. It’s not just private companies that are involved in contracting with foreign companies and having access to sort of foreign labour. Australian governments typically do that through their procurement and other contracting arrangements, yet we don’t have in place the debarment architecture that would mean that, where a company or an operation overseas has been found to engage in exploitive practices or modern slavery, they would be prevented from being involved in Australian procurement processes.

Having talked about the way modern slavery occurs overseas and the way Australian companies are at risk of being complicit in that kind of conduct, we shouldn’t think it doesn’t happen in Australia—it does. There have been some examples in my home state of Western Australia. It was not that long ago that we had a live export ship, known as Bader III, where, in addition to the mistreatment of animals that the Bader III delivered, it also involved the mistreatment of humans. It involved the mistreatment of its crew, who hadn’t been paid for six months, who weren’t allowed to go ashore, who were owed, in sum, about half a million dollars, and who had been forced to sign contracts under which, if they were injured or ill, they would pay for their own repatriation.

There were also agricultural operations in Carabooda and Pemberton in Western Australia that came to the attention of authorities and seemed to constitute a practice of modern slavery in the agricultural setting. When you looked at the Fair Work Commission’s assessment of those circumstances, it was interesting to note the elements that they identified that made the employment of the people involved akin to modern slavery. They were migrant workers; their movements were controlled; their basic liberty was compromised; they lived under the threat of further jeopardy; they lived in substandard conditions; and they were required to work for unacceptable pay in unacceptable conditions. That is essentially the definition of modern slavery, and it was happening in Western Australia.

As I said at the beginning, it’s a bit of a case of so close and yet so far. It’s disappointing that this bill and the mechanism or the structure it puts in place doesn’t apply any penalties for a failure to comply. I think it’s pretty obvious to people out there in the community that, if you put in place a requirement and you say that people have an obligation to report and they do not comply and nothing happens, there’s a big question mark over exactly how effective that would be. This bill does not create or fund an independent anti-slavery commissioner. Instead, it has this sort of unit within the Department of Home Affairs. It seems that that unit will focus on helping businesses to undertake their compliance work. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m not saying that assistance shouldn’t be provided. But an independent antislavery commissioner would ensure that there would be some focus on victims, that there would be some perhaps investigative capacity or at least the capacity to work with and advise other kinds of law enforcement bodies. It’s not as if that’s just something that the opposition and the shadow minister for justice had been calling for; that’s the unanimous recommendation of the foreign affairs subcommittee, which had, as its recommendation No. 6, the creation of an independent antislavery commissioner precisely to ‘ensure victims of modern slavery, including children, have access to appropriate support services’, and also under a separate bullet point ‘to work with various agencies, law enforcement bodies, prosecutors and others to increase the identification and reporting of modern slavery crimes and to bolster the prosecution rates for modern slavery offences’. That won’t occur because there is no independent antislavery commission.

We know that the bill in some respects takes the UK’s Modern Slavery Act, which was introduced in 2015, as something of a model but, again, it doesn’t really follow that closely enough. One of the best examples is in the threshold that’s been set for Australian companies. At $100 million, it’s considerably higher than the threshold in the UK. The committee, again, unanimously recommended a $50 million threshold. Civil society organisations suggested the threshold be the same as ASIC’s definition of a large corporation, which would be $25 million.

In conclusion, it’s a welcome step forward; we support it. We particularly support the amendment, which would make it even better. It’s a shame we’ve come so far and yet fall short. If we are going to do these things—they are important regulatory steps—why not get them right? Why not follow the process? You task a committee with doing it, it’s led by a member of the government, it produces a unanimous report that follows international best practice and civil society advice, and yet we don’t take it.

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