Senate debates

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

Matters of Public Importance

Modern Slavery Expert Advisory Group

5:11 pm

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Road Safety) Share this | | Hansard source

I inform the Senate that at 8.30 am today 22 proposals were received in accordance with standing order 75. The question of which proposal would be submitted to the Senate was determined by lot, and as a result I inform the Senate that the following letter has been received from Senator Gallagher:

Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:

The Morrison Government's incompetence in failing to appoint any civil society or union representatives to the Modern Slavery Expert Advisory Group, thereby establishing an unbalanced Group that overwhelmingly represents business interests, and undermining Australia's progress to eradicate modern slavery in supply chains.

Is the proposal supported?

More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—

I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times to each of the speakers in today's debate. With the concurrence of the Senate, I shall ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly.

5:12 pm

Photo of Kristina KeneallyKristina Keneally (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

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.

5:23 pm

Photo of Susan McDonaldSusan McDonald (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Well, how disappointing to see such an important issue as modern slavery being picked up by the Labor Party and absolutely being made up of political point-scoring. It once again demonstrates the lack of understanding that Labor has for how to get things done. In this case it is how to take a very practical piece of legislation, which has, as its base, an advisory group that will complement the existing consultative forums, such as the National Roundtable on Human Trafficking and Slavery, which was established 12 years ago, in 2008. The round table comprises 12 civil society and NGO groups and only one business organisation, I have to point out, and one union. Yet there is this complete lack of understanding of how the advisory group will provide information back to business and government on the implementation of these important initiatives and reforms. I am also very concerned that Senator Keneally has talked about people in Australia working in modern slavery. I'm sure that if she has knowledge of such circumstances she would be bringing that to the attention of the authorities.

I want to talk particularly about the great work that has been done in the agricultural sector. Most recently, it is Growcom who has put together the Fair Farms initiative. Fair Farms is an industry led initiative. It's aimed at fostering fair and responsible employment practices in Australian horticulture, and that's the kind of practical and useful initiative that ensures that workers are being paid properly and fairly. I want to expand on that to say how pleased I am that Coles has picked up that initiative and has worked in partnership with Growcom to pick up the Fair Farms certification. It's a terrific initiative from very practical people, ensuring practical outcomes.

I imagine that the reason Coles has done that is because of their ethical supply chain and their ethical-sourcing policies, which they have gone to great lengths to put on their website—as have Woolworths and ALDI. It is unfortunate, though, that they can't—

Senator Keneally interjecting

I'm sorry was Senator Keneally saying something to me? I couldn't hear it. Sorry, I've just lost my train of thought! It is an important initiative to ensure ethical supply sourcing, which ensures that businesses are paid adequately, that their workforces are paid properly and that there is a little bit of something left in it for the business. It is unfortunate that Coles, Woolworths and ALDI don't apply to dairy and to dairy farmers the same practice of ethical sourcing that they're now putting across through Growcom and the Fair Farms certification. They're being paid less than the cost of production and being robbed blind of a fair price by these big supermarkets, who are putting downward pressure on prices through the milk and dairy processors, ensuring that dairy farmers are at the very bottom of unfair negotiating practices. Indeed, I was horrified to hear again this week that Lactalis, the Queensland based milk processor, is trying to introduce a new clause into milk contracts, saying that any dairy farmers who then do media on their contracts would not have their milk picked up. What an outrageous threat to make to these hardworking Australians, who have a very short shelf life for their milk.

So it is important that we continue to work hard on ensuring that we don't have modern slavery in this country. The advisory group is a terrific initiative that will provide feedback to government about businesses' responses to modern slavery. Thank you for raising this matter.

5:27 pm

Photo of Nick McKimNick McKim (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank Senator Keneally for bringing this matter—a very important matter—before the Senate. And, while I'm handing gratuitous thanks around the chamber, I want to thank and acknowledge the work that then Senator and now Minister Reynolds did in shepherding the Modern Slavery Act through the previous parliament. Of course it was supported by the Australian Greens, although we did express, and we still retain, the view that penalties should have been part of the legislation. And I thank Senator Keneally for her support for that comment. I can only hope that when the review that's required does take place, there will be a recommendation for penalties to be inserted into the act.

The Modern Slavery Expert Advisory Group is the topic of this matter of public importance, and the Australian Greens share the concerns articulated by Senator Keneally. This act, this piece of legislation, is essentially a supply chain management act, and it deals in large part with working conditions. It would have been most helpful if the Modern Slavery Expert Advisory Group contained people with expertise in supply chain management and with expertise in and relationships with people who represent workers in this country. The minister's guidance material on the Australian Modern Slavery Act states in the Commonwealth Modern Slavery Act 2018: Guidance for Reporting Entities:

Collaboration with civil society organisations such as non-government organisations, as well as other stakeholders like workers and their representatives, can be an important way to strengthen your entity's response to modern slavery.

That's obviously aimed at corporations, in the main, but the point that it makes is equally relevant to the make-up of the Modern Slavery Expert Advisory Group. So where in this expert advisory group are civil society organisations and NGOs, and where are the workers and those who represent workers?

I'm also in possession of the letter that Senator Keneally referred to—that is, a letter to Assistant Minister Wood signed by a number of civil society and workers organisations, including Human Rights Law Centre, Australian Council of Trade Unions, United Workers Union, Uniting Church in Australia, Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, Be Slavery Free, Transparency International Australia, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, the Salvation Army, ActionAid, RMIT Business and Human Rights Centre, Victorian Trades Hall Council, University of New South Wales, University of Melbourne, University of Technology Sydney, University of Western Australia, Monash University, RMIT University and UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

Those groups, and the signatories to that letter who represent those groups, have made it perfectly clear to Assistant Minister Wood that the appointments to the Modern Slavery Expert Advisory Group that have been announced by Mr Wood overwhelmingly represent business interests. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched this government in action over the last parliament and in this parliament, because—let's face it—they are most comfortable when they are hearing from their corporate mates and they are least comfortable when hearing from areas of our community like civil society organisations and unions who represent workers. I'd add that, outside the context of this debate, what makes them most uncomfortable is receiving advice and suggestions from the environment movement, but that's a subject for another day.

As the letter points out, 'The need for the government's approach to be informed by those working directly with workers at risk is critical.' It's very difficult to argue with that sentiment, very difficult indeed, and it's a sentiment that is shared by the Australian Greens. This debate is encapsulated in the second-last paragraph in that letter to Assistant Minister Wood, which says:

This leads to the disturbing result that Australia'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.

Let's be very clear about this. The Modern Slavery Act is not intended to be beneficial legislation for corporations; it's intended to be beneficial legislation for people at risk of modern slavery. That's what it was designed to do. Even though it lacks some teeth and it lacks some structures that would allow it to perform that role to the full extent of its capability, it is, nevertheless, a decent first step down the road—and it could be a better step and a larger first step down the road if the Modern Slavery Expert Advisory Group appointments were made with due consideration of the need to include representatives of civil society organisations, workers and unions who represent working people in Australia.

I also want to refer to a couple of matters that have come up in the debate about racism in this country—a very welcome debate that our country and many other countries around the world are engaged in at the moment. It's a debate that people are putting their lives on the line to have in many parts of the world, including in Australia. We have a Prime Minister who last week tried to claim that there was no history of slavery in Australia and then, when he was quite rightly pulled up on that, tried to weasel out of that claim with a 'sorry if you're offended' non-apology—the kind of non-apology that we hear far too much of in public life in Australia at the moment. What I want to say is that it's very difficult to understand how the Prime Minister of this country could be so ignorant of Australia's history. There has been slavery in Australia. There have been many shameful instances of slavery in Australia's history.

Unfortunately, one of the big issues that we have in this country, in the context of the debate about racism that we have had and are continuing to have in Australia, is the fact that so many of our structures are based on a racist colonial legacy, the concept of terra nullius and the fact that we are yet to reach genuine reconciliation with First Nations peoples in Australia. Until we have a treaty with First Nations peoples in this country, we will still have significant unfinished business. Until we have that treaty, it's going to be very hard to eradicate the kind of systemic racism that far too many First Nations people and people of colour in this country face every day. It's not just their daily lived experience; it is the structures of so much of what goes on in this country that are based on that racist colonial legacy and on the fact that we have yet to come to terms with the dispossession, the murders and the genocide that occurred in this country in regard to white settlement and the way that white people treated First Nations people when white people arrived in this country.

5:37 pm

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Manufacturing) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased that the government is getting on with implementing the Modern Slavery Expert Advisory Group and, indeed, implementing the legislation, but it will only be the world-leading initiative that we want it to be if it brings the right experts together—those with the practical knowledge and expertise in combating slavery. It's laudable and terrific that so many big Australian companies want to step up and nail their colours to the mast to combat modern slavery in Australia, but I tell you: they can't do it alone and they can't do it without the right people around the table.

This group could be a great and wonderful resource for taking steps towards crushing modern slavery in our nation and, indeed, making a contribution around the world. However, the appointments to this group don't include anyone who has ever worked with people at risk of modern slavery. I tell you that there are places where modern slavery exists in our nation. You can see it. I understand that there are experts in those companies who work on it in their global supply chains, and I see that there are some academics on the group, but I want to tell you that we need a broader base than that. It needs to be people who can work with small business, because we've seen modern slavery in our nation in the agricultural sector. We can see it in people's homes, in domestic service. We can see it in so many locations around our nation. As the Prime Minister proved last week, in his ignorance of and blindness to Australian history, it can be right under our noses and we can still not see it, because of our cultural prejudices and our blindness. When you see, for example, a domestic servant in someone's house, you're going to assume that they're there of their own free will and that they're being paid properly. You have to take your blinkers off and look for exploitation in many places. In our colonial history, we saw incarcerated First Nations people as prisoners, when in fact they were slaves. You might have seen Pacific Islanders as immigrants here for employment, as they are today, when in fact they very much were slaves.

I want to put the onus on the government and say that you need to have people on this advisory group who work directly with people who are in exploited labour situations today: people who are in these situations in our nation today but also people who work at the coalface of exploited labour, slavery-like conditions and slavery conditions right around the world. People who produce goods and exercise modern slavery are pretty good at hiding what they do from their supply chains. I know that there are experts from corporations who have been appointed to this panel that well know that and will be quite good at what they do; I don't deny that. But you must also have representatives from people who understand the kind of economic and cultural leverage that people have over other people that puts them in these slavery conditions.

I'm really pleased that Minister Wood has acknowledged that he would like to meet with Senator Keneally on the basis that so many groups have critiqued the appointments to this body. I can see my good senatorial colleagues opposite saying that what Labor is saying is incorrect. I have to tell you that I deeply respect the academics and the civil society groups that have written to Minister Wood, raising their concerns. I don't negate the credentials of those that have been appointed, but I say to you that it is blatantly one-sided and we've got an opportunity to fix that, to bring in the diversity that will be required to combat modern slavery in our nation and globally.

5:42 pm

Photo of Gerard RennickGerard Rennick (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Slavery is perhaps the most abhorrent practice in human history, and I doubt that that's a matter up for debate. If we all agree on how deplorable slavery is then I fail to see why those opposite would seek to make the elimination of modern slavery from international supply chains a partisan issue. But, then again, history shows that nothing is above petty partisan politics when it comes to the Australian Labor Party, especially when they are doing the bidding of their union masters.

Senator Keneally interjecting

Do you think that abolishing slavery is a joke, Senator Keneally? I don't think so. Given the sharp decline in the relevance of trade unions, evidenced by the fact that they now only represent 14 per cent of Australian workers, you would think that this extremely sectional interest group would wake up and accept that its influence has diminished in line with its dwindling representation. Yet, apparently not. Any opportunity to press their thumb on the scale, to leverage undue influence for their flagging enterprise, is grasped with gusto. And that's what today's matter of public importance from the Labor Party is all about.

Photo of Louise PrattLouise Pratt (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Manufacturing) Share this | | Hansard source

Well it's easy to fix!

Photo of Gerard RennickGerard Rennick (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Pratt, please take this seriously. Surely this is a new low, even for those opposite. At a time when the primary concern of this government is ensuring that as many Australians as possible are supported as we emerge from a global pandemic, the opposition can't resist making a petty political point, a point dripping with self-interest on an issue that should be above party politics and factional interests.

Senator Keneally interjecting

Senator Keneally, please. The fact remains—

Senator Keneally interjecting

Senator Keneally, I didn't interrupt you. The fact remains that ending modern slavery is an extremely noble and worthwhile goal and one that we should all be committed to. The Modern Slavery Act will hold large businesses to account and ensure they work earnestly to mitigate the risk of modern slavery within their supply chains. The act is the strongest legislation of its kind in the world. The act sets clear, mandatory criteria that businesses must meet. It creates a central register to house statements on modern slavery and even requires the government itself to report on modern slavery risks in procurement.

The Australian government has a strong and effective national response to modern slavery and human trafficking. There are a set of powerful criminal offences, with up to 25 years imprisonment, available as a punishment, as well as specialist investigative teams working within the Australian Federal Police. The government works extremely hard to ensure that Australia's Modern Slavery Act is world leading and drives businesses into a race to the top. Reporting requirements and the risk to brand reputation mean it is in the best interests of businesses to comprehensively deal with even the suggestion of slavish exploitation within their supply chains. Good supply-chain management and ethically sourcing products are big winners in the modern marketplace. One need only look at McDonald's talking up their ethical sourcing of coffee to see that this is a path that big corporates are keen to take. And consumers support it, meaning it is as much a good business decision as a moral one.

Let's not pretend that anything about this legislation was rushed or that extensive consultation wasn't carried out. Consultation included a detailed public discussion paper, released in August 2017; roundtables, with representatives across the spectrum, held in September and October 2017; more than 50 meetings with stakeholders; and almost 100 written submissions. To put it bluntly, this was an extensive process that sought as much feedback and input as possible. The government have also released guidance on reducing the risk of modern slavery within the context of our COVID-19 response.

The call to action around this initiative is one which unites all parts of society, yet those opposite seek to criticise and divide on this very issue. Public nominations for the expert advisory group to assist with the implementation of the act were sought in February this year. The group is a diverse one, made up of business and academic figures as well as the previous chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Chris Crewther, who is incredibly well qualified and has the experience to be in this group. Chris led from the start on this issue and chaired the parliamentary inquiry into the drafting of the legislation. Independent experts and people with pragmatic experience in this field, like those on the advisory group, are the people best placed to guide the application of the legislation, to reliably identify and remedy problems within supply chains and to remain true to the spirit and objectives of the act. It makes sense to combine the best theoretical and academic minds on the subject with best practice from industry. This is what the exceptional appointees to the expert advisory group bring to the table. This is the best path forward to ensure that trends and practices in this area are monitored and our responses stay ahead of attempts to disguise this wicked practice.

To me, it is ludicrous to suggest that a union representative would somehow make any positive difference to this group, which is intended to be non-political and seeks to match the best industry leaders with leading academics with experience in and understanding of the field. Unions have a chequered history when it comes to protecting workers, often placing their own interests first. You need only look at Bill Shorten's time as AWU secretary—ask the workers.

Photo of Glenn SterleGlenn Sterle (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Road Safety) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Rennick, order! Just before my colleagues jump, I would urge you, under the standing orders, to refer to those in the other chamber by their correct title, please.

Photo of Gerard RennickGerard Rennick (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Sure. Ask the workers on the EastLink project how they feel about union representation. So-called flexibility measures ripped workers off substantially. The builder then paid the union almost $300,000 over the next few years. Unions look after their mates in the ALP and vice versa. Then there was the Winslow incident, where workers had their union fees paid by the company, seemingly without their knowledge—just the block of members being chucked into the AWU for no apparent reason. Or there's Cleanevent, where workers were signed up to the union without knowing, where the union numbers delivered diminished penalty rates of hardworking cleaners. Again, to enhance union influence in the Labor Party, cleaners and construction workers have been clear victims of modern trade unions. It is a disgrace.

Finally, if Labor are concerned about unions having more influence, why not bring them to the table on an issue where they do have a stake? They should perhaps look at getting unions on board with amendments to the Fair Work Act to make it easier for small businesses to comply. To look at how difficult this is, we need only look at the failure of compliance by Senator Watt's old employer, Maurice Blackburn. If an industrial law firm can't get it right, how can a small-business owner with no legal training ever get it right?

The fact remains that, except with those directly opposite, unions are less relevant than ever. In a global economy with complex supply chains, a union official is likely to be unqualified when determining how modern slavery might corrupt complex supply chains. This is the reason none were selected, and to suggest that anyone is incompetent for making a correct decision only serves to sum up the ALP: a party who are interested in protecting their rivers of gold from union fees and superannuation funds. The hardworking Aussie battler was left behind by the Labor Party a long time ago. Human rights are non-negotiable, and ending slavery is a critical goal. We should all be working together to achieve it.

5:52 pm

Photo of Malarndirri McCarthyMalarndirri McCarthy (NT, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I was on the subcommittee that produced the report Hidden in plain sight, along with many other Labor members. As the Greens have already raised, I commend the defence minister, Linda Reynolds, for her work in bringing this through to the parliament. I also acknowledge Chris Crewther MP, the chair of the subcommittee at the time. We travelled over to the UK and were briefed quite extensively on the UK legislation, so we were able to listen and have evidence brought before us on what worked and what didn't work. It was quite clear that this Senate and the joint committee took united steps to push forward this report, which is quite extensive. We were enormously pleased to push for an antislavery commissioner and, clearly, we were very disappointed that it could not progress beyond the current piece of legislation. But there's always hope. I note that New South Wales took the step as the first jurisdiction in Australia to appoint an antislavery commissioner, and I think there's certainly still scope for the federal parliament to do the same with this piece of legislation.

That's why it's important that this matter of public importance is brought on, in relation to the 10 people who have been appointed by the assistant minister in this regard. I bring to the attention of this Senate that there has been tremendous work on this from all sides of the parliament. This isn't just about standing up to raise an issue; this is about imploring Minister Wood to actually listen to the concerns that are genuinely being raised here in the Senate through this MPI.

We had over 250 submissions to the Hidden in plain sightinquiry, and many of those came not from government organisations or companies—from corporates—but from smaller businesses and families, from those that wanted to give their views, from religious quarters, from all of those groups. I think it's important to acknowledge that they're absent in this. And what about the NGOs? I pick up on the comments by the senator who spoke previously. The unions are critical to this—they are very relevant—because we're talking about workers and the exploitation of individuals, whether it's in family homes or in farming companies, and we certainly heard plenty of that when we travelled around Australia. We estimate that over 4,000 people are still in slavery here in Australia. So we needed to make sure that this expert advisory group reflected the concerns that were raised in our inquiry. I would certainly urge Chris Crewther, who is on this advisory group, and Minister Jason Wood to push hard and make sure they do have union representatives and expert advisory groups from civil society who can fairly bring forward a compassionate position, but a very practical one, in terms of the representation they bring, especially on behalf of the over 4,000 people we are aware of, in our estimates through this report, who are enslaved here in Australia today.

I'd urge senators to realise the importance of this MPI. If you think that these 10 people are being identified as not being good enough, we're saying that you could do better; you must do better. So many senators and members have worked so hard on this particular piece of legislation, and we will not stop. We want to see an antislavery commissioner in this country. We want to stop slavery full stop. Over 40 million people around the world are enslaved somewhere, and over 4,000 of them are here in Australia. So this is a matter of public importance.

5:57 pm

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I say at the outset that I don't have an issue at all with a representative of the trade union movement with appropriate expertise in modern slavery and supply chain management being a member of this expert advisory group. I suspect there will be a fulsome discussion. As Senator Keneally acknowledged, the minister has agreed to meet with her, and that's a good thing. I also acknowledge Senator McCarthy's warm comments directed towards Senator Linda Reynolds and also a previous member of the other place, Chris Crewther. Those were very warm comments, and I certainly acknowledge them.

My issue with this MPI is with respect to the language used. Can we come back for a moment and consider what civil society is. What is civil society? It's people brought together with common interests, and whether or not they are a member of a company or a legal academic or have been at the forefront of setting up charities which have helped protect the most vulnerable people in our world, every single person on that expert panel is part of civil society, and their common interest is to abolish modern slavery. That's the concern I have with the wording of this MPI—it is a 'them and us' MPI.

Does anyone in this place seriously think any of the 10 members on that expert panel are going to try to wriggle their way out of complying with the legislation? Does anyone honestly think that? I say that as someone who was a senior executive and a director of companies in Laos, in PNG, in Myanmar, in Thailand—countries where there was modern slavery. I say that as a person who has held those senior director positions and senior executive positions. And you know what? We didn't even need a piece of legislation to fight against modern slavery. We didn't need this chamber to pass this act when we decided to fight against modern slavery. Why? Because it was the right thing to do. It was to have appropriate due diligence with transport supply chains, to make sure contractors and their subcontractors weren't engaging in abhorrent child labour. It was the right thing to visit the contractors, walk their factory floors, have a look at their occupational health and safety standards and see if they met the requirements. Each and every person on this expert panel brings some particular expertise to this committee.

I don't know who worded it but I think it's quite shameful that this MPI has been worded in a way that seeks to pit business against worker. We are talking about civil society here and the collective interest to abolish modern slavery. Let's not forget the great Australian who was at the forefront of fighting against modern slavery—Twiggy Forrest. What side is Twiggy on? He was at the forefront of combatting modern slavery but the Labor Party—some of them, not all—want to make it a partisan issue and want to say it's about them and us. It's not; it's about collective interest to abolish modern slavery.

I will just refer to some of the qualifications of some of the members of that expert panel because one of them is a constituent of mine from my home state of Queensland—Dr Kate van Doore. Kate has done an absolutely wonderful job setting up a charity that looks after orphanages. I can't think of anything more vile than people trafficking in children, selling them into orphanages. Kate has established a charity, an NGO, that specifically addresses that. So why come into this place and tip a bucket on these good people? Why? To what end? Why didn't you just raise the matter in a civil way with the minister and say, 'You know what, it could be helpful to avoid something like this if you actually put on a member from the trade union movement.' Why put forward this awfully worded MPI? It's disgraceful. And to actually assert that this has the potential to undermine Australia's progress to eradicate modern in supply chains—how? They didn't explain how.

The fact of the matter is, the legislation which was passed by this House through the committee Senator McCarthy participated on requires companies to put a statement on a publicly searchable register outlining how they comply with the legislation in their supply chains, how they do that due diligence, how they do that risk management. The people on the committee are people who have experience in sustainability reporting, in public reporting by public companies, in advocating on these issues, in supply chain management. What an idea—some of the experts we have got on the expert panel actually do supply chain management! And this is an issue that you couldn't raise some other way? Goodness me! It's despicable, absolutely despicable.

Let me refer to someone else who has had the bucket dumped on them by those opposite, in particular by Senator Keneally. Sunil Rao, a lecturer at La Trobe University law school, founded the Modern Slavery Initiative. He's written books on child trafficking, the history of anti-slavery laws. You say he is unbalanced on the issue? Why don't you do your homework before you tip the bucket on Australians?

It might be the way the New South Wales Labor Party behaves, Senator Keneally, but I would have expected you to rise to a higher standard when you came to this place—maybe not! And let's not talk about the Victorian Labor Party. I'm not sure they're part of civic society, are they, Senator Keneally?

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Scarr, I remind you to address your comments to the chair. Thank you.

Photo of Paul ScarrPaul Scarr (Queensland, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Madam Deputy President. I think another point that needs to be noted in this debate is that this expert panel actually reports to the national round table. And who is on the national round table? Let's have a look at who is on the national round table, because I didn't hear anything about the national round table from any of the speakers opposite. I certainly didn't hear an acknowledgement that the expert panel actually reports to the national round table. They report to a round table that includes the ACTU; the expert panel actually reports to a round table that includes the ACTU. They're actually subject to oversight by the body that includes the ACTU. And those opposite have an issue!

From time to time, it is quite dismaying that those opposite make political issues out of things they shouldn't. This matter could have been handled quite differently, but they were chasing a headline. I do hope Senator Keneally's meeting with the minister is fruitful, but can I just say this: it would have been nice if that meeting had occurred without tipping the bucket on good Australians.

6:06 pm

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Earlier this year I met with Lydia and Delo, two women originally from the Philippines living here in Canberra. They had been recruited to work as qualified massage therapists. They had been sponsored on 457 visas and had signed contracts which promised them legal pay and conditions. But when they arrived in Australia their employer took their passports from them, forced them to work 13 hours a day six days a week and kept them under constant surveillance. They were forced to live in an overcrowded house and were locked inside. They were banned from talking to family and friends and were forced to hand back part of their salaries, in cash, to their employer. All the time their employer kept the threat of deportation hanging over them, and their family members back in the Philippines were threatened with violence and harm if they spoke out.

There were two groups that helped those women. One was the Salvation Army and the other was the union movement—specifically the United Workers Union. So it's extraordinary that those groups have been excluded from this advisory panel; it is absolutely extraordinary. It was with the support of those groups that these women were able to bravely stand up, tell their story, and speak out and advocate on their own behalf for the justice that they so incredibly deserve. It is extraordinary that those groups are not participating in the government's Modern Slavery Expert Advisory Group. Right now the likelihood is that, if an example of modern slavery is found in Australia, it will be a union, a human rights organisation, a faith organisation or a social service organisation that finds it. It is also these organisations that are working directly with the workers who are impacted by modern slavery for them to be able to speak out and fight for justice. It is these very organisations that have been advocating for the type of supply chain reform that senators on the other side of the chamber have been talking about. These are the people who have been advocating for this reform. So this is not optional. It is absolutely critical that this expert advisory group include these organisations in the discussions about how we, as a country and as a society, can best tackle this tragic issue.

Last year I met with a group of farm workers who had similar experiences in my home state of Victoria. Their experiences were very much located in a supply chain of exploitation, with supermarkets at the top. Mahali was one of the workers who told me about contractors paying workers $10 an hour to pick fruit, lettuce and herbs not far from where I live in Victoria. Danial told me about how the farm labour contractors are setting this up. They're charging thousands for a visa application, they're taking workers' passports off them on arrival and they're leaving the farm workers trapped in these exploitative conditions. Farm workers are unable to go home and are terrified of speaking out and being reported to immigration, so it takes incredible courage for them to speak out.

Of course, the organisations that are helping them speak out are the unions. That is why we need the union movement to be included on this expert advisory group. I really welcome the government's decision to establish this group. It is absolutely vital that this committee exists to inform the government on responses to combating modern slavery in supply chains. It's an incredibly important step, and we need to get Australia's response right. Again, it just cannot be the case that the very organisations that work directly with the victims of modern slavery are excluded from this advisory group. Out of the 10 appointments made to the advisory group, they overwhelmingly represent business and employers, and that is just not good enough.

Contrary to the comments made on the other side, of course we welcome business and employers being on that advisory group, but we want to see balance. We want to see the people who have been advocating for and speaking out with these workers who've been exploited, who've experienced this modern slavery, to be included in the discussion about the solutions. That is all we are asking for in this matter of importance debate today. The advisory group has received 70 applications to participate from organisations in the union movement and civil society, including the ones I mentioned before. Let's pay some respect to the organisations that have been doing the work to advocate and speak out with these workers. (Time expired)

Photo of Sue LinesSue Lines (WA, Deputy-President) Share this | | Hansard source

The time for the MPI debate has concluded.