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Wednesday, 28 November 2018
Page: 8797

Senator FARRELL (South AustraliaDeputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (11:06): I rise to speak on the Modern Slavery Bill. Today there are more than 40 million people around the world in slavery. That is more than at any time in human history. Two-thirds of those people are in the Asia-Pacific region, right on our doorstep. In fact, there are now more people trapped in slavery in the world today than there have been at any time in human history. They're all around us: in our regions, our products, our services.

The deprivation of someone's liberty is one of the greatest violations of human rights. We can and must do more to prevent this practice. Labor believes that an effective, strong modern slavery act is an important first step in tackling this problem. That's why, over a year ago, Labor announced our commitment to introduce a modern slavery act and establish an independent antislavery commissioner if elected. We are so pleased that the government has followed our lead and introduced this bill. The bill would, for the first time, establish a supply chain transparency reporting obligation requiring major Australian businesses to report on what steps they're taking to identify modern slavery in their supply chains. Done well, this bill could reframe how businesses approach the issue of slavery in their supply chains.

But, as with all great reforms, the devil is in the detail. To make real change, the law must have teeth. Labor is very disappointed that the government refused to include penalties for companies that breached the proposed Modern Slavery Act and opted for a business engagement unit instead of an independent antislavery commissioner. This weak commitment is disappointing but hardly surprising from a government that has shown itself, time after time, to be toothless when it comes to regulating big business.

Labor moved amendments in the House of Representatives to introduce penalties for companies that fail to comply with the Modern Slavery Act and called for the government to establish an office of an independent antislavery commissioner. While we support this bill because it's a step in the right direction, we believe that the government can and must do better to tackle the appalling human rights abuse. First and foremost, the Modern Slavery Act must have penalties for non-compliance. Labor believes we should not be leaving it to big business to police themselves on slavery. There is a genuine passion in the business community and in the broader Australian community to fight slavery. No business wants slavery in their supply chain. No consumer wants products tainted by slavery. But if there are no penalties there's a high risk that many companies simply won't comply.

Anti-Slavery Australia, in its submission to the Senate inquiry into this bill, found:

Three years since the UK Act's enactment, only approximately half of the 9,000-11,000 organisations that the UK Government estimates are required to report, have produced a 'slavery and human trafficking statement'.

Many stakeholders argue passionately for there to be penalties for companies who breach the Modern Slavery Act. This included the Human Rights Law Centre, the Law Council of Australia and Oxfam, all of whom called for penalties to be included in the bill. The ACTU, in their submission, argued:

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.

Combating slavery should not be optional. There's no excuse for not looking. Labor will again be moving amendments to introduce penalties for failing to comply with the Modern Slavery Act.

We must also address the need for a commissioner. About once a month we hear, watch or read about a new case of slavery right here in Australia, whether it be migrant workers in agriculture or women in sex work. Earlier this year, Four Corners reported that, just a few kilometres from where we stand right now in Parliament House, at least 20 domestic workers were trapped as slaves, yet no-one ever seems to be held to account, and the facts bear this out. The most recent figures from Senate estimates revealed that in five years, despite all the articles we've read about slavery in Australia, just seven people were successfully convicted. We must do more to crack down on this sickening crime. That's why, over a year ago, Labor committed to establishing an office of the independent slavery commissioner if we were elected. Victims of modern slavery are often incredibly vulnerable and face cultural, social, economic and language barriers. There are also significant gaps in the support services we provide for victims of modern slavery. A commissioner would assist to remedy these gaps in enforcement, help victims and work with civil society to help prevent and detect slavery in Australia. Key stakeholders including the Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans, Anti-Slavery Australia and the ACTU have joined Labor in the call for the establishment of an independent antislavery commissioner. The government's decision to walk away from an independent commissioner in exchange for a business engagement unit shows that their primary concern, as always, is to protect big business.

Finally, Labor is also very concerned that the bill includes forced marriage as one of the forms of exploitation required to be reported on by business. Key stakeholders have warned that this bill may have unintended consequences, including driving forced marriage further underground. As Good Shepherd state in their submission to the Senate inquiry into this bill:

Ordinarily it is not the role of business to inquire into the private lives of its employees, contractors or suppliers (or employees of its contractors) in order to identify practices such as forced marriage. If we liken the practice of forced marriage to that of family violence, corporate responsibility lies with supporting the wellbeing of individuals impacted by violence, not in identification and reporting on violence.

Instead of driving this practice further underground by making it the problem of business, the government should improve the support services it provides to victims.

Despite these concerns, I want to acknowledge the bipartisan and cooperative approach of the assistant minister Senator Reynolds, who's in the chamber today, and reiterate Labor's support for this bill more broadly. Labor passionately supports the introduction of a modern slavery act. We want to see action on this important issue of human rights, and we will be moving amendments to make this bill stronger so that we can move forward in the fight against slavery.