Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

Move welcomed by campaigners, but Labor says changes ‘inadequate and ineffective’

Australia urged to act on modern slavery following revelations of widespread exploitation, including of domestic workers in embassies. Photograph: Anna Gowthorpe/PA

The federal government will force 3,000 big companies to explain how they are stamping out modern slavery, a move welcomed by anti-slavery campaigners.

But unions and Labor say the changes will be “inadequate and ineffective” without the creation of an independent anti-slavery commissioner or penalties for corporations that breach their new requirements.

The government has been urged to act on modern slavery following a series of revelations of widespread exploitation, including of migrant fruit pickers in Australia, domestic workers in Australian embassies, and children in foreign orphanages.

On Wednesday, it announced further detail on how it would create a new reporting regime designed to drive transparency among big businesses with a turnover of more than $100m. The 3,000 companies will be forced to publish an annual modern slavery statement detailing their efforts to reduce modern slavery in their supply chains. The federal government will be forced to issue its own consolidated statement on modern slavery in its procurement.

The statements will be kept in a publicly-accessible central repository, and the regime will be overseen by a new unit in the home affairs department.

“This legislation sends a clear message that modern slavery will not be tolerated in our community or in the supply chains of our goods and services,” assistant home affairs minister, Alex Hawke, said.

Estimates, while difficult to make accurately, suggest about 4,300 people in Australia are the victims of modern slavery, including through human trafficking, debt bondage, forced labour and other slavery-like practices.

An inquiry into modern slavery last year made a string of recommendations, including to create an independent anti-slavery commissioner, mirroring a model used in the United Kingdom.

The inquiry also called for a reporting regime, but said it should be applied to companies with a turnover of $50m, a far larger pool than that captured in the government’s proposed scheme.

The reaction to the government’s reporting regime has been mixed. The Walk Free Foundation, an anti-slavery group, welcomed the announcement, as did the Business Council of Australia.

Walk Free Foundation chief executive, Jenn Morris, said the reporting laws were stronger than those in the UK, and the requirement for a government statement was a “world first”.

“Pleasingly this announcement takes the Australian modern slavery act beyond its precursor in the UK, which is currently the gold standard for modern slavery reporting, by including a central repository of modern slavery statements,” Morris said.

A survey of procurement managers in Australia, conducted by the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply, suggested the vast majority (80%) believed the rules were a step in the right direction.

It also found 60% supported penalties for businesses that fail to publish reports, and that 20% had not taken any steps to date to ensure their supply chains were slavery free.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions said the reporting requirements were weak. The ACTU’s international and civil society associate director, Andrea Maksimovic, said it had ignored a key recommendation of the inquiry – to establish an independent commissioner.

“Putting this responsibility into the hands of Peter Dutton will simply ensure that companies get a free pass,” Maksimovic said.

Labor’s shadow justice minister, Clare O’Neil, also criticised the absence of an independent commissioner and penalties for non-compliant companies.

“Labor believes that we should not be leaving it to big business to police themselves on slavery. Australia needs a modern slavery act with penalties, and an independent anti-slavery commissioner,” she said. “Anything less would be weak, half-baked response to an shocking human rights issue.”

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