New Federal Modern Slavery Act welcomed as global momentum builds to address the role of business in human rights

December 4, 2018

Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR) commends the passing of the federal Modern Slavery Act 2018. This important human rights legislation represents a first step towards eradicating modern slavery in the operations and supply chains of large Australian companies.

The Walk Free Foundation and the International Labour Organisation estimate that last year around 40.3 million people worldwide were victims of modern slavery, with as many as 15,000 victims of modern slavery in Australia, including victims of forced marriage.

Lauren Zanetti, Co-Chair of ALHR’s Business and Human Rights Committee said, “The new Act reflects similar laws passed in the UK, California and more recently New South Wales, which seek to drive a ‘race to the top’ in business responses to eradicating modern slavery in their supply chains throughout the world. These laws seek to create a level playing field to ensure that large companies which take seriously their responsibility to respect human rights  are not disadvantaged by laggards who continue to utilise or turn a blind eye to modern slavery throughout their operations and supply chains.

“Under the new Act, modern slavery is defined to include conduct such as debt bondage, forced labour, deceptive recruiting for labour, trafficking in persons, forced marriage and child labour which are all criminalised in Australia. This conduct can be found in supply chains in many sectors, particularly in high-risk sectors such as apparel, construction, and agriculture as well as in countries with weak governance.”

“The new measures  mean that businesses with a consolidated revenue of $100 million or more per annum are required to report annually against mandatory criteria regarding the steps they have taken to identify and prevent modern slavery risks in their supply chains, both in Australia and overseas. Around 3,000 companies will be required to mandatorily report under the legislation, and other businesses can report voluntarily.”

Ms Zanetti said, “These reporting requirements seek to facilitate reputational and market consequences for large companies that are not taking adequate action to address the grave human rights issue of modern slavery in their operations and supply chains.  Businesses’ annual supply chain statements must be signed at board level and held in a publicly accessible, online central register, run by the Government. The Federal Government is also required to provide an annual statement on behalf of a range of Commonwealth entities.”

“The Act is an important step towards ensuring Australians are not unwittingly buying products tainted by slavery. This legislation and similar laws globally reflect increased community expectations regarding what companies must do to maintain their ‘social license to operate’ as well as a growing recognition that the protection of fundamental human rights cannot be achieved without companies taking action to address the human rights impacts of their operations and supply chains,” Ms Zanetti explained.

“While it is disappointing the Act does not include civil penalties for failure to comply with the reporting requirement, or an Anti-Slavery Commissioner, ALHR hopes these issues will be re-considered during the mandated three-year review of the legislation.”

“ALHR congratulates the Federal Government on the passage of this important legislation and urges it to ensure that it is the first among a number of steps undertaken by Australia to implement the 2011 United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (Principles). These Principles reflect requirements in international human rights law for States to protect people from human rights abuses from third parties, including businesses. The Principles also provide that businesses have a ‘responsibility to respect’ human rights in their operations, including throughout their supply chains.”

Contact: Matt Mitchell, ALHR media manager 0431 980 365.