Tuesday, 16 June 2020
Matters of Public Importance
Modern Slavery Expert Advisory Group
Just over 18 months ago, the Modern Slavery Bill 2018 passed the parliament, taking the first steps to tackle modern slavery risk in the operation of businesses and supply chains. This was the parliament working together to make progress to a fair, decent, compassionate and responsible country. These steps were taken because no country in the world is immune to modern slavery.
The most recent estimates from the United Nations International Labour Organization predict there are 40.3 million people in the world currently trapped in slavery. That's one in every 200 people on the planet trapped in a form of modern slavery. Given the way in which people are forced into silence and subjected to abuse, there are more, undoubtedly, that we will never know about or be able to account for. Of those people, 24.9 million are in forced labour, working against their will and under threat, intimidation or coercion. That's the equivalent of the entirety of the Australian population being trapped in forced labour. The other 15.4 million people are estimated to be living in forced marriages—and, yes, that includes people right here in Australia. Slaves are forced to clean houses or to be maids. They pick fruit, they mine minerals and they make electronics. There have been reports of Nepalese migrant labourers facing exploitation and even dying in Qatar as the country builds infrastructure for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Slaves even make the products, including clothes, on the shelves of stores here in Australia, and close to five million people globally are trapped in forced sexual servitude or sexually exploited. This is a reality for millions of people around the world that we cannot ignore. For those people who are trapped in forced labour and working in supply chains for products that end up in Australia, the Modern Slavery Act and its reporting requirements are the beginnings of Australia doing its part to stop this scourge.
From my portfolio perspective, as the shadow minister for home affairs, we've seen tens of thousands of people end up in slave-like conditions on farms right here in Australia. On the Minister for Home Affairs's watch, people are being trafficked to Australia on tourist visas, made to apply for asylum and sent out to work in exploitative conditions on farms or in other jobs for the three or so years it takes to determine their asylum claim. There is nothing wrong with claiming asylum—it's an important right—but 90 per cent of these applications are eventually found to be without merit. The number of aeroplane arrivals represents a work scam run by people smugglers as they expand their business model from boats to planes, and it's trapping people in slavery.
Even the Assistant Minister for Customs, Community Safety and Multicultural Affairs, Jason Wood, warned, in a report to this parliament, about this crisis unfolding on Mr Dutton's watch, and still Mr Dutton has not acted. Even today, in The Sydney Morning Herald, there are stories of a people-smuggling venture being intercepted in Timor-Leste, with 11 Vietnamese nationals seeking to get to Australia. In fact, the task force emergency response coordinator in Timor-Leste told The Sydney Morning Herald that these Vietnamese have been offered work on Australian farms by people smugglers. You used to be able to trust this government with Australia's borders. Indeed, Operation Sovereign Borders has bipartisan support. But, sadly, you can't trust Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton anymore. Labor want Australia to be a world leader in tackling modern slavery. We don't in fact disagree with the government on this very important issue. But, just as the government has stressed so many times, in so many areas of policy, we must not set and forget.
The government announced on 17 February that it would be establishing a Modern Slavery Expert Advisory Group. The group has the purpose of 'collaborating with business and civil society to combat modern slavery in supply chains through Australia's Modern Slavery Act 2018'. The government opened nominations for positions, seeking 'experts with practical experience in business and human rights, procurement and supply chain management to help drive effective implementation of the Modern Slavery Act'. These are sensible and important steps, and I thank the government, and I pay credit to Assistant Minister Wood for establishing the panel they announced three weeks ago, on 25 May. However, there is a 'but', and it is a very significant one. There is not a single representative from civil society organisations or unions that has been appointed to the panel—not one from advocacy organisations, no-one from charities, no modern slavery experts with practical experience and no-one from the union movement. This leaves an unbalanced group that overwhelmingly represents business interests and undermines Australia's progress to eradicate modern slavery in supply chains.
This isn't political point scoring. In fact, the statistics speak for themselves. From the 70 applicants, including many experts in the modern slavery field, not a single appointment has been made from those who are working directly with the workers who are at risk of modern slavery. I have significant concerns for what this group will be able to achieve without representatives from civil society or the trade union movement. The 10 appointments that have been made to the Modern Slavery Expert Advisory Group overwhelmingly represent business interests. Six out of the 10 appointments are from large Australian companies, including Bunnings, Telstra, Country Road Group and David Jones. There are five permanent members in the group. Three of the five permanent members of the group are the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Australian Industry Group and the Business Council of Australia. All of the groups directly represent the interests of business. A fourth, Global Compact Network Australia, is predominantly a network of Australian businesses. There is also one member of the group who has held positions in the Liberal Party in New South Wales, yet still no-one from the union movement or civil society.
On 1 June a letter was sent to Assistant Minister Wood from 20 civil society organisations, unions and academics, voicing their alarm following the government's announcement of appointments to this group. This letter, signed by 20 civil society groups, warns that mass unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will heighten risks of labour exploitation, making it crucial for the government's approach to be informed by experts working directly with workers at risk. They stress that, given the current panel appointees, the government's 'efforts in combatting modern slavery will be driven by companies that are subject to Australia's modern slavery laws, rather than the interests of people at risk of modern slavery'. I share these concerns, which is why I wrote to Minister Wood yesterday stressing the need for the government to listen to these experts. I acknowledge that the minister has contacted me today, offering a meeting.
The government must ensure that the Modern Slavery Expert Advisory Group is balanced and has unbiased representation. The government cannot let their incompetence or their stubbornness potentially jeopardise Australia's response to modern slavery. The government worked with the unions and civil society when it came to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, and the government is continuing to do so. The government can, and they should, take a similar approach now with modern slavery.
How can the government comprehensively address modern slavery with an expert advisory group that contains no representation from groups who work directly with the workers who are working in slavery, who are at risk of modern slavery? It beggars belief. It defies logic. I implore the government and the assistant minister, Jason Wood, to make further appointments to this expert advisory group from civil society organisations, from churches, from charities, from the trade union movement, to guarantee that the Modern Slavery Expert Advisory Group is balanced and informed in its representations, importantly so that voices and the experience of workers who are in modern slavery or at risk of modern slavery are heard and understood by the government.
We must work together to get Australia's response to tackling slavery right. The Labor Party in this parliament and in the community stands ready to do that with the government, which is why I have made these representations to Minister Wood. I am pleased he has offered a meeting. I am hopeful that he is willing to enter into a dialogue that sees balance come onboard this expert advisory group. If we don't get our approach to modern slavery right in Australia, getting it wrong will do nothing to stop this scourge that is infecting tens of millions of people around the world.