Senate debates

Tuesday, 5 September 2017


Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade; Report

6:34 pm

Photo of Lisa SinghLisa Singh (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Attorney General) Share this | Hansard source

I seek leave to speak on the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade's interim report on modern slavery and global supply chains.

Leave granted.

As a member of this joint standing committee, I heard throughout the inquiry about the devastating impact of modern slavery and the need for stronger measures to combat it. The interim report that has been tabled here in the Senate today is the first step towards implementing stronger measures to combat modern slavery here in Australia. So far, the committee has heard about the tens and tens of millions of people who are trapped in slavery and slavery-like conditions around the world, but two-thirds of them are actually in the Asia-Pacific. They're enslaved in the global supply chains of products and services that Australians use every day. They are victims of exploitation in private sector activities such as manufacturing, construction and agriculture. In Australia, they tend to be men, women and children trapped in forced labour, sex trafficking and debt bondage by exploitative criminal syndicates.

Of course, no person wants to purchase goods tainted by slavery, but often, unbeknownst to them, they are doing so. The same goes with business. No business wants to have slavery in its supply chain, but, currently, consumers and businesses are left in the dark about it. That is why Australia needs a modern slavery act, which is what this committee has been inquiring into. The input of raw material elements in the supply chains is where the worst forms of worker abuse occur. Forced labour and child labour are the most prevalent. According to the Walk Free Foundation, it is because globalisation has resulted in the demand for cheap labour that modern slavery is often hidden within a vast range of supply chains, a long, long way from a country like Australia, where the goods are in the end sold.

Legislation similar to a modern slavery act is currently in place in the UK, France, Canada, the EU and California. Enacting that kind of modern slavery act in Australia would ensure that we would be doing all that we could to fight slavery and finish this horrific practice. A modern slavery act would enable Australia to live up to its commitment to the United Nations sustainable goal 8.7, which is to take immediate, effective measures to eradicate forced labour and end all forms of modern slavery, human trafficking and child labour.

This interim report addresses one aspect of how to better combat modern slavery in global supply chains of Australian businesses, companies, organisations and governments. The report recommends that major Australian companies publicly report on steps they are taking to tackle slavery in their business or supply chains. It would ensure that no Australian company was either directly or indirectly engaged in modern slavery. Further recommendations include establishing an antislavery commissioner to help victims of modern slavery right here in Australia and fighting slavery both in Australia and overseas. These recommendations were presented as part of Australia's contribution to the Bali Process Government and Business Forum held only last week in Perth. It is an important process to ensure that Australia is doing all that it can, that it is doing its part, to combat modern slavery. This interim report lays the groundwork for a modern slavery act in Australia. There is still, indeed, a lot of work for this committee to do, so it is only an interim report at this stage.

Having said that, though, it was in April this year that Labor announced our support for a modern slavery act. We made very clear that we want to improve transparency within the business supply chains. Our shadow minister for justice, Clare O'Neil, outlined how Labor would commit to establishing an antislavery commissioner and helping victims of modern slavery right here in Australia. Earlier last month, the parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement, which I also sit on, backed Labor's policy calling for the government to consider enacting a modern slavery act when it handed down its report on human trafficking, slavery and slavery-like practices, which also included a number of recommendations which the current Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade is looking at in its modern slavery act inquiry to help its deliberations in that way. Labor has had a lot of support. Obviously there have been a lot of submissions during this inquiry process as well. They have come from Fair Trade Australia, the Law Council of Australia, University of Melbourne experts, Hagar Australia, Slavery Links, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Anti-Slavery Australia and ACRATH—a lot of experts in the field and a lot of community representation made.

But I would just like to draw on some of the remarks that have been made in relation to the government's announcement and the recommendations it refers to in this interim report. These remarks come from the Law Council of Australia's president, Fiona McLeod. She has for some time now played a very prominent role during the course of her career in advocating for a more robust approach in Australia to antislavery. She said:

Unfortunately, exploitation is alive and well in modern Australia.

In recent years alone we have seen shocking domestic examples of human trafficking, sex slavery, forced labour, deceptive recruiting for labour services, forced marriage, and debt bondage. And we know what comes to light is only a very tiny sample of what lurks in the shadows.

Requiring large businesses to scrutinise their supply chains and report on measures they are taking to combat exploitation is a very important mechanism to shine a light on modern slavery.

She goes on to raise some of the issues that this committee is going to have to continue with when it hands down its final report, and that is to do with the threshold of the turnover of a business. Fiona McLeod and the Law Council believe that the reporting threshold should be somewhat less than the $100 million that the current Turnbull government have announced as being fit.

I think this is an area of contention and ongoing debate, and our committee is going to have to look at what that threshold should be and what we end up recommending. Ms McLeod outlines that the consultation paper that the government put out has the $100 million threshold, which the Law Council thinks should be reduced, as it 'only captures some 2,000 companies and a lower threshold would do more to address the problem'. I think that is a very worthwhile consideration and something that also needs to be addressed. She also outlines how the UK antislavery legislation model captures all businesses that have revenue equivalent to A$60 million and over and how that may be a more appropriate threshold level. She outlines something that Labor has been very strong on, and that is that there should be robust penalties for noncompliance to ensure rigour and accountability. This is really important because, without looking at some kind of penalties approach, businesses simply won't take this seriously and therefore a modern slavery act won't set out to achieve what we want it to achieve.

So Labor welcomes very much the input from the Law Council of Australia and a number of community organisations, academics and experts in the field who know too well that we are well overdue in Australia to act to combat modern slavery. Who would have thought that in 2017 we would still be talking about these issues of modern slavery, forced labour and sexual servitude? Well, indeed we are, and the only way to address it is to have some legislation to change that behaviour on the part of business and to address slavery in those global supply chains so that we don't see an ongoing repeat, right here in Australia today and indeed in our region, of something that happened over 100 years ago. I seek leave to continue my remarks.

Leave granted.


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