Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP speaks on the Modern Slavery Amendment

7 February 2024



I rise to speak on and support the Modern Slavery Amendment (Australian Anti-Slavery Commissioner) Bill 2023. I'd like to start by thanking Dr David Cooke who worked tirelessly to get the Modern Slavery Act in the first place and recognises this is a very big problem.

Modern slavery is a global issue that the Australian government has a role in addressing. Its scope is huge, ranging from the use of forced labour in overseas factories to forced marriages to domestic servitude in suburban Australian homes. In 2023, the Global Slavery Index estimated that globally nearly 50 million people are victims of modern slavery—over half are women and a quarter are children. Nearly 30 million of those are in forced labour.

It's not just an overseas problem. You could be forgiven for not realising that it is also occurring in Australia. It's estimated that about 1.6 people in every 1,000 are a victim of modern slavery in Australia, so that is still 41,000 people in Australia.

The policies and laws required to address these issues are multiple, as outlined in the National Action Plan to Combat Modern Slavery and requires the engagement of different departments and agencies, including the Australian Federal Police, as well as Australian businesses and government due to the influence and responsibility they have over their supply chains. There is no place for modern slavery in Australia, yet it hides insidiously here as well, in homes, in businesses and, of course, indirectly in the global supply chains of the products and services bought by unsuspecting Australians. I know the constituents of Warringah want confidence that the purchases they make, whether it be a solar panel or a chocolate bar, support fair and free practices and do not risk supporting modern slavery. Yet modern slavery is hidden in the global supply chains of some of the products we buy and services we procure. Because of this, corporations have a key role in addressing and minimising modern slavery risks.

The Modern Slavery Act 2018 deals with only one of the many avenues to combat modern slavery: the role of large Australian businesses in identifying and mitigating modern slavery in their supply chains. It established a reporting regime for large companies of over $100 million in revenue, with statements made publicly available. Mandatory reporting for large companies has been well received. To date, over 4,000 companies have met the reporting threshold and submitted statements in conjunction with the act. Over 70 per cent of those companies support mandatory reporting requirements under the Modern Slavery Act, and less than 10 per cent are not supporting the requirements.

Recently, the McMillan report, which reviewed the first three years under the Modern Slavery Act, made a number of recommendations, including strengthening or reporting, such as due diligence requirements. The government has not yet responded to this review. I understand the establishment of the independent commissioner will help support the government in its response to that very important review.

The bill currently before this House amends the Modern Slavery Act to establish an Australian antislavery commissioner to play a soft role of supporting and monitoring the operation of the modern slavery reporting regime. The establishment of the position itself is welcome and long overdue, having been called for in multiple inquiry recommendations, including the Hidden in plain sight Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade on modern slavery inquiry and civil liberties groups, including the Human Rights Law Centre and Walk Free, to match other leading jurisdictions, including the UK and Europe.

However, the powers conferred on the commissioner are limited, primarily focused on a commissioner who will support business, educate and advise civil society, government, and agencies, and provide limited support to victims of modern slavery by directing them to appropriate agencies. The functions outlined in the bill before the House, to assist businesses identifying and mitigating modern slavery risks and to provide national leadership in raising awareness of modern slavery issues, are broadly consistent with the McMillan review, creating a commissioner responsible for supporting and monitoring rather than investigating and prosecuting.

One power, though, that has not been expressly included from the McMillan review includes the role of the commissioner in identifying regions and supply chains that are at higher risk than others from modern slavery and compelling businesses covered by the reporting requirements to consider these higher risk areas. Although this may be achieved through the powers that are outlined, the importance of this function means that this power should be expressly included in the bill.

An example of the specific risks include the modern slavery risks that are known to be within the renewable economy supply chains. I know from my advocacy on the need to accelerate our transition to a renewable economy that ensuring industry is free from modern slavery concerns is critical. We cannot trade one problem for another—solving climate change at the expense of risking the exacerbation of modern slavery and human rights violations. I know my constituents are concerned about these risks, including child labour in the mining of critical minerals such as cobalt and forced labour in solar panel supply chains. They are genuine concerns that must be addressed. Additionally, these risks are weaponised by groups seeking to undermine the transition to renewable energy like this is a 'one or the other' choice. It's not.

The commissioner should have a responsibility to address these risks. However, this bill establishes a commissioner with limited powers, particularly compared with other jurisdictions, such as Europe and the UK where commissioners have the broader power. Under this bill, the commissioner does not even have the power to compel the businesses subject to the Modern Slavery Act to meet their requirements. Instead, the commissioner will play the role of assisting businesses, leaving enforcement of the Modern Slavery Act to the Attorney-General's Department. Additionally, the bill expressly states that the commissioner does not have the power to investigate or resolve individual cases of modern slavery, taking a weaker position than the New South Wales commissioner.

Maybe the greatest omission from this bill, in fact, is that there is no requirement or duty for other agencies or departments to co-operate with the commissioner in the event of findings. This is a provision that is included in the New South Wales legislation and ensures a requirement for findings made by a commissioner to be adequately followed up where such actions fall outside the commissioner's scope of jurisdiction. I think it's a missed opportunity in this bill to establish a commissioner who considers modern slavery issues more broadly beyond the role corporate Australia plays in addressing modern slavery issues and the limitations of the Modern Slavery Act. It's a bird's eye scope for a commissioner that has been advocated for by civil liberty groups, including Walk Free. When it comes to modern slavery in business and supply chains, it is not only the role of Australian corporations to identify and mitigate; the Australian government must do more to address modern slavery and give Australian's confidence that the products and services they buy and the commissioner could have a role in monitoring and supporting broader reform.

International jurisdictions are implementing Magnitsky-style sanctions and border protections for the rejection of goods that are made with forced labour. Beyond supply chains, modern slavery hides across Australia in every area of society and the economy. It exists in small businesses in Australia and in homes in Australia, and it extends to the illegal sex trade, including paedophile rings.

Last year the Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes investigated serious failings in our Home Affairs office that included modern slavery—the story of Henry Qi, who believed he was coming to Australia to study and was instead a victim of industrial-scale exploitation of our visa scheme, forced to work in a car window tinting factory with appalling conditions with his passport taken away from him.

Whilst we often think of modern slavery as something that is happening in developing nations far away, it is actually here as well, and so we need to be mindful of how we frame and think of the problem. Even in Warringah: I know from a brave constituent her story of being a victim of human trafficking as part of a child paedophile ring from the age of four when she lived in Adelaide. Her story highlights the horrific trauma inflicted on the victims of human trafficking.

There is a need for independent oversight of all types of modern slavery, which could be undertaken by the commissioner. The scope of this office should be broadened in the future. I welcome this bill and its establishment of the commissioner, but there is more work to be done to enhance and strengthen the Modern Slavery Act and its operation and broaden the role of the commissioner. I call on the government to accelerate its response to the 30 recommendations made in the McMillan review and other actions, including the visa system, sanctions and border control, to bring Australia's response to modern slavery in line with other leading jurisdictions.