BILLS - Modern Slavery Bill 2018 - Second Reading

12 September 2018

I'm incredibly proud to rise today to speak on the Modern Slavery Bill 2018. As the ACTU president, I had the honour of standing with the member for Hotham to support her announcement over a year ago of Labor's commitment to a modern slavery act. I thank the member for Hotham for the work and time she's put into this issue.

I am proud the Labor Party has led the way with this. Tackling slavery and exploitation is core to our mission. If we are honest, we are only here today debating this bill because the government succumbed to Labor's leadership and pressure. But, like with so many other issues, the government has produced watered-down, less-effective legislation. If the government is going to follow Labor's lead, I wish they'd do it properly.

The bill seeks to establish a modern slavery reporting requirement to require certain large businesses and other entities in Australia to make public on an annual basis their actions to address modern slavery risks in their operations and supply chains. This is long overdue and welcome news, but there are two crucial elements to tackling slavery that this bill is missing: penalties for noncompliance and the introduction of an independent antislavery commissioner. These were put forward by Labor in our modern slavery act, an announcement which was warmly greeted by business, union and civil society stakeholders. Labor is proposing amendments so that the bill includes penalties and an independent antislavery commissioner. These amendments force companies to take seriously their obligations regarding due diligence in their supply chain. If the government won't support them, it will prove they are not serious about tackling the scourge of modern slavery.

In my previous role as president of the ACTU I worked with the Labor government on their modern slavery policy. Through this process and my own personal experience in the union movement I learned about the extent and horror of modern slavery. It's not a faraway issue or a distant problem. It's not someone else's issue; it's our issue. There are more people trapped in slavery in the world today than ever before. The Walk Free Foundation estimates that there are 40.3 million victims of modern slavery worldwide. Two-thirds of these poor people are in our region, the Asia-Pacific region, many of them stuck in the global supply chains of products and services which Australians use every day.

Figures vary with respect to the number of people enslaved in Australia. The Global Slavery Index estimates that there could be around 15,000 people currently trapped in modern slavery right here in Australia. Trafficking and slavery are occurring in our suburbs and communities. That should shock people. When people think of slaves their minds take them to past notions of slavery as an issue which perhaps has been solved. This could not be further from the truth. Research shows that those high-risk areas and industries where workers are most likely to be held in slave-like conditions in Australia are, not surprisingly, industries that engage workers on employer sponsored visa arrangements, where temporary low-skilled migrant workers are trapped far away from home. These workers are vulnerable to forced labour exploitation, starting with exploitation by those who facilitate their journey to Australia.

According to the 2018 Global Slavery Index those industries that are high risk for forced labour include agriculture, construction, domestic work, meat processing, cleaning, hospitality and food services. There are red flags for identifying victims of modern slavery. These include workers being housed in substandard accommodation, illegal pay deductions for food or rent, situations of debt bondage, confiscation of passports and pay well below the minimum wage. There have even been cases of exploitation of domestic workers who have endured and escaped conditions of modern slavery in diplomatic households right here in Canberra.

Individuals reported withholding of passports, working excessive hours, low wages and threats to themselves or even to their family back home as well as restrictions on their movement. The majority of modern slavery victims identified by authorities to date have been women from Asia who have been exploited within the sex industry. While modern slavery occurs within Australia, the realities of global trade and business make it inevitable that products bought, sold and consumed here have been brought about by enslaved workers just off our shores. The offshore industries most likely to engage in modern slave labour are those involved in making laptops, computers, mobile phones, apparel and clothing, fish products like tinned tuna, and rice and cocoa.

Australia has a big role to play in fixing this issue. As a country, as a parliament, we simply must do more to prevent this practice. An effective, strong, modern slavery act is a key part of that battle, which is why it is so disappointing that the government has put forward a modern slavery bill without penalties for companies that fail to comply with the act's requirements. This is an incredibly serious misstep, though it's no surprise coming from a government who constantly kowtows to big business.

Essentially, the government is setting up a scheme that provides a written obligation for companies to do something with no penalties if they don't comply. Companies will be free to decide if they can comply with this or not. That's not good enough. If the royal commission into the financial sector has taught us anything, it is that self-regulation and self-reporting are a farce and don't work. We cannot trust big business to police themselves on slavery within their own business or supply chains. I note with interest that the NAB, one of the star witnesses at the banking royal commission, which has been setting the bar lower and lower every day with allegations of misconduct including charging deceased people fees, does not support the key plank of Labor's amendments—that is, the introduction of an antislavery commissioner. Do we really believe a simple self-report mechanism will work with these big businesses? Evidence provided to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry into this bill showed that in the UK, where there were no penalties, the percentage of businesses that have reported still hovers around 30 per cent of those who have an obligation to do so. I'm sorry, but that is not good enough. As the ACTU said in their submission:

In order to make any difference to the lives of workers in Australia and abroad, the Modern Slavery Act must act as a serious motivator for companies to start acting upon the values expressed in their statements and guidelines and provide an effective deterrent for those who fall short of their obligations.

Hence, any Australian legislation enacted should include a strong enforcement mechanism imposing penalties on companies that do not comply with due diligence and reporting requirements.

The risk of noncompliance is real and high and it is obvious that this would severely undermine the effectiveness of the act and the goal to help eliminate modern slavery in supply chains. If the government want to be serious about tackling modern slavery, they must support Labor's amendments. If they do not, they just prove to the Australian people that once again they are utterly toothless when it comes to regulating big business, which brings us to our second point about how the government has completely fluffed this legislation, which lacks the establishment of an office of an independent antislavery commissioner. Rather, the government intends to establish a modern slavery business engagement unit within the Department of Home Affairs. A unit buried deep in the department, charged with engaging with reporting entities, will not be able to fulfil all the tasks that would make the act effective.

It is critical that someone independent of government, with the capacity to speak out to government, NGOs, unions and business, holds the role of the antislavery commissioner. In Senate estimates last year, it was revealed we have only had seven slavery convictions in half a decade. As I mentioned before, the prevalence of modern slavery is far greater than that. We urgently need a commissioner to help victims and crackdown on this sickening crime. In the United Kingdom, the independence of the commissioner has been vital in ensuring cooperation from business and in addressing labour exploitation in creative and proactive ways. This has increased reporting of breaches of the act, victim identification and, ultimately, successful prosecutions. The role of the commissioner as someone who can engage with victims of slavery is incredibly important.

Victims are incredibly vulnerable and face cultural, social, economic and language barriers in wresting themselves free from their situation. They often have a mistrust and fear of police and government authority in general, which is why so many of my colleagues in the union movement have been the ones coming across these workers and trying to advocate for them and for justice. Union organisers are close to the workplace and workers. They build up trust and camaraderie over time, which is vital in helping the victims of forced labour to come forward and speak up. The unions show empathy and compassion and, sadly, often find themselves unable to properly advocate for these workers. In fact, comrades in the CFMEU have been fined for going on site to help workers caught in situations like this. The fact of the matter is the organisers can encourage the use of and provide explanation of the role of an independent commissioner, a concept that hopefully the workers will be more likely to engage with.

There are also significant gaps in the support services we provide for victims of modern slavery. As the entrapped victims are mostly from foreign countries, language is a massive issue and interpreters are essential. Many of them have no understanding of their rights as workers, of what their pay and conditions should be, of occupational health and safety, of the industrial relations issues with respect to representation or even joining a union. They have no idea of who to go to for help. They may not even understand the banking system or payment modes or what the employer can charge them for rent or food and so on.

We have a responsibility, to workers in this country, for their safety and to ensure they know their rights and can have them enforced. A commissioner would assist to remedy these gaps, help victims and work with civil society to help prevent and detect slavery in Australia. The government's decision to walk away from independent commissioner in exchange for a business engagement unit shows that their primary concern is, as always, protecting big business with little regard for the real barriers the victims face.

In Labor's amendments, we propose that the commissioner will also lead our global efforts to fight slavery, including working with other countries and international organisations. It's incredibly important that the government agrees to this. If we are to have any impact on modern slavery in the global supply chains, we will need global cooperation and international instruments.

I was a delegate to the International Labour Conference for many years and had the honour of being elected to the governing body of the ILO. I have seen firsthand the importance of international cooperation and globally negotiated instruments, like standards and conventions, in combating serious issues, like slavery, and in enforcing rights around the world. Indeed, I've had the pleasure and honour of negotiating a number of these with employers and governments, but I also know that working domestically is just as important.

As I said, I am very proud to speak on this legislation today. It is long overdue. It acknowledges that modern slavery is occurring in our region because of our products and it's our responsibility to fix it. If the government supports Labor's amendments, it will be a bill we can trust will actually go much further to address that responsibility.