Modern Slavery Bill 2018

House of Representatives - 12 September 2018

Watch Matt's Speech here

Mr KEOGH (Burt) (17:23): I rise also to speak on the Modern Slavery Bill. When we think about slavery, often this brings to mind images of workers in fields suffering terrible abuse at the hands of their masters and being marched across deserts, and images of chained hands and scars from lashings. Growing up in late 20th century Australia, this is what comes to mind—historical injustices. You wouldn't immediately consider working in a family restaurant in Northbridge as a form of slavery. You wouldn't expect working as a brickie in Southern River as a form of slavery. You certainly wouldn't expect a new marriage in Australia to be shrouding exploitation.

It is reprehensible that there are more people trapped in slavery in the world today than there have been at any other time in human history. The Walk Free Foundation estimates that there are more than 40 million victims of modern slavery in the world today. Right here in Australia, I'm repulsed to say the number of individuals trapped in a cycle of exploitation is estimated to be in the thousands. Human trafficking, slavery and exploitation are occurring in our suburbs behind closed doors. As a country and as a parliament, we are obligated to do more to prevent these practices. A robust modern slavery act is a step in the right direction.

This bill establishes a modern slavery reporting requirement that requires large businesses and other entities to make annual public statements on their actions to address modern slavery risks in their operations and, importantly, in their supply chains. Many of these big companies have already experienced cases of modern slavery in their supply chains and have found them, and are now leading the charge in combatting this deplorable practice once and for all. Even mining magnate and founder of the Walk Free Foundation, Andrew Forrest, discovered slavery in the supply chain of his own Fortescue Metals Group in 2012. Thousands of workers connected to one of our country's biggest companies were earning next to nothing and their passports were being held to ransom by their employer. Upon finding this, Mr Forrest said the supplier claimed no knowledge of these slavery-type practices and their response was instantaneous: passports were returned, illegal recruitment fees were back paid and major overhauls were made to ensure this did not happen again.

It's proactivity like this from big business that will ensure modern slavery is then tackled head-on, but we need to support them in doing so; we need to ensure that there is a level playing field for them. This bill will ensure that businesses are constantly reviewing their supply chains and business practices so that they can catch out this dastardly behaviour in their supply chains and bring financial pressure to bear in an effort to eradicate such modern slavery. The bill requires entities with annual revenue of more than $100 million to make a public statement on a yearly annual basis of their actions to address modern slavery risks in their operation and their supply chains.

Labor support this bill, but we feel that this bill doesn't go far enough. Tackling slavery and exploitation is core to Labor's mission and in no way, shape or form do we tolerate worker exploitation or human rights abuses of any kind. We recognise that modern slavery is a hidden problem that won't be discovered without meaningful attempts to expose it and requirements on businesses to check their supply chains to that end. It's why, over a year ago, Labor committed to legislating a modern slavery act with penalties for noncompliance.

We believe the bill now before the House should include a strong enforcement mechanism, imposing penalties on those who do not comply with the act. We recognise that the implementation of this reporting obligation will be significant for all companies, so we worry that, without penalties, companies may not be sufficiently incentivised to comply with the bill's requirements. The reason for our scepticism is not unfounded. Last year's Senate inquiry heard that, in the three years since the implementation of the UK's similar antislavery act, only about half of the 11,000 or so organisations that were required to report had produced their slavery and human trafficking statements. Combatting slavery should not be optional. It is an obligation of a progressive society such as ours. We cannot turn our eyes away from what is occurring. Bad things happen when good people say and do nothing. There is simply no excuse for not looking. This is why we are moving amendments to introduce penalties for failing to comply with the modern slavery act provisions.

We are not alone in this mindset, with the overwhelming majority of stakeholders who gave evidence to last year's Senate committee inquiry calling for penalties to be included in the bill as well—organisations like the Human Rights Law Centre, who told the committee:

The Bill should be amended to include a robust enforcement framework, including penalties for entities that fail to report or provide inadequate, false or misleading information. Penalties should include both financial and non-financial penalties …

These sentiments were echoed by Anti-Slavery Australia, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, Oxfam, Stop the Traffik, the Law Council of Australia, the Advisory Committee of the Modern Slavery Registry, the ACTU, the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria and the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia—and that is not all.

These supply chain reporting requirements must divulge specific information, including information about the company's supply chain where risk has been identified in that supply chain, what steps are being taken to ensure slavery isn't part of that supply chain and how they are training staff to manage all of this appropriately. A list of the companies required to report will be publicly available for the sake of transparency and a central repository of statements will ensure each company is meeting their obligations, or at least allow the public to check. It's only through such steps that this parliament can take the first steps to combating modern slavery.

In conjunction with this, we are calling on the government to remove forced marriage from the reporting requirements. Stakeholders are concerned the inclusion of forced marriage will have unintended consequences. After all, it is not ordinarily the role of business to inquire into the private lives of their employees. It is up to businesses to support employees that might find themselves in family violence situations and possible forced marriage. But we do not believe it is appropriate for this form of modern slavery to be addressed in this particular bill.

We are well aware Australia's current approach to forced marriage is not working. Under the current government, we haven't had a single successful prosecution of forced marriage offences under the Criminal Code. Of course, that doesn't mean that it's not happening. We instead propose that we should establish a forced marriage unit to provide a one-stop shop to connect victims to the support that they need and to remove the cooperation requirements as part of our forced marriage protection order, among other things. We ask the government to match Labor's forced marriage policy commitment, in order to give these victims the support they need, rather than driving this repulsive practice further underground.

We also ask that the government go back to the drawing board and propose a second reading amendment in this House to establish an office of an independent antislavery commissioner. This current bill proposes a modern slavery business engagement unit. Essentially, this would be a unit buried in the Department of Home Affairs, focused on assisting business in fulfilling their reporting requirements, but not actively helping victims to get the help that they need. This will not be seen as a solution to the problem and it won't do anything to assist the thousands of people trapped in slavery in Australia now. We call on the government to establish an office of an independent antislavery commissioner, because we know victims in Australia deserve more than another bureaucratic big business liaison unit. We need an independent commissioner to assist victims and to remedy the current gaps in law enforcement.

Last year's Senate estimates revealed we only had seven slavery convictions in Australia in the last five years. Victims of modern slavery are often some of society's most vulnerable. They are often individuals with cultural, social economic and language disadvantage. An independent commissioner would have the capacity to not only support these victims after the fact, but to work with civil society to prevent and detect this sickening spiral of crime.

The underground nature of slavery makes it very difficult for authorities to detect and even more complex to investigate and prosecute. The intention would be for the commissioner to work with victims of slavery to resolve inquiries and complaints. In addition, they would have the capacity to assist business to build best-practice structures and to receive inquiries and complaints.

Through the implementation of an independent commissioner, we would be following in the footsteps of the similar legislation that is currently in place in the United Kingdom, France, California and the European Union. Through this approach, we would expect the commissioner to work with these other countries and international organisations to lead the global effort to fight slavery. A number of consulted key stakeholders are in support of this proposal, including the Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans, Anti Slavery Australia and Walk Free.

Stop the Traffik told us: 'There are at least six government departments whose engagement and action will be required to implement the act effectively. An independent commissioner would be able to work with these departments in a more effective manner than one department. It is the nature of government departments that they are siloed with different priorities and different ministers. Through an adequately supported and resourced independent commissioner, this matter would be given the priority status that it deserves.'

The Australian Lawyers Alliance furthered this thought, saying that an independent commissioner would 'strengthen Australia's response to combatting modern slavery'. They said it could undertake the legislated review of the modern slavery act every three years to ensure the long-term effectiveness of the legislation and hold big business to account for compliance.

Labor will not oppose this bill in the House, as the passage of this bill is vital to combat the scourge of modern slavery. However, we do implore this government to add penalties to the bill, remove forced marriage and re-evaluate the need for an antislavery commissioner. By enacting a robust modern slavery act in Australia with these amendments, this parliament in a bipartisan manner will be ensuring we are doing all that we can, as we should, together, in modern 21st century Australia, to eradicate modern slavery during our lifetime.