Establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia

On Wednesday, 15 February 2017 the Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis QC, asked the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade to inquire into and report on Establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia. Submissions supporting such an Act were invited from the public. 185 individuals,  organisations and businesses made submissions including STOP THE TRAFFIK and other like-minded groups. A series of public hearings has commenced, offering an opportunity for any interested person to hear summaries of these submissions followed by a brief Q and A between the presenters of their submission summaries and the Senators on the committee.

Here is a true story told in the course of the second public hearing on Friday June 23: An Australian woman was on holiday on a ship in waters off Thailand last year. Not far away she saw a much smaller ship which she was told was a Thai fishing vessel. She said she would like an opportunity to learn about the Thai fishing industry and was given a lift over to this boat and helped to climb aboard. Almost the first person she saw when she boarded this boat was a man wearing a metal collar, padlocked to the deck. “What’s happening?” she asked. “Oh, it’s a slave.”  “Why is he padlocked to the deck?” “So it doesn’t run away. If it’s not careful it’ll become fish fodder. You can buy it if you like” “How much?” asked the woman. “$700”.  After a quick phone call she was joined by another person from her own ship, they paid over the $700, had the young man freed and delivered him safely to authorities in Thailand.

Interestingly and sadly this story is almost a replica of the story told with STOP THE TRAFFIK’s first petition in 2009 to the Australian government about the importing of trafficked-tainted goods into Australia. In that incident, a man had already been thrown overboard and others were told “be careful the same thing doesn’t happen to you.” We thought some progress had been made following Carolyn and Fuzz Kitto’s talks last year with Thai Union, a large seafood company but clearly more needs to be done.

Back to the hearing last Friday. The first presenter was Andrew Forrest, founder and chairman of Walk Free. He was assisted by lawyer Fiona David, now on his staff and a long-time researcher and writer about human trafficking. Mr Forrest presented some statistics, some from Walk Free’s Global Slavery Index, for example, that there are currently around 45.5.million slaves worldwide. As a businessman, he emphasised the responsibility big business has to ensure that all stages in their supply chains are exploitation-free. He mentioned the investigation into his own Fortescue Metals and the discovery that one of his contractors was using forced and bonded labour. His rapid response was  “I’ll go to the media” and within 40 days this contractor was paying all his workers properly. Mr Forrest mentioned also one high profile company director (did not name him) who stated that he was afraid to audit his supply chains for fear of what he might find. There was considerable discussion during Mr Forrest’ session and subsequent ones about the UK’s Modern Slavery Act, his reservations about it and improvements that Australia could make, based on UK’s two-year experience of its Act. The benefit of having an independent Commissioner of Trafficking and Slavery and/or Ombudsman was also discussed during the day.

Next to present was Professor Jennifer Burn of Anti-Slavery Australia (ASA) with Professor Paul Redmond also of UTS. Jennifer Burn noted the importance of the government setting an example in ethical procurement, then moved on to the primary concern of ASA which is the prevention of trafficking into Australia and support for people trafficked here. Professor Burn was asked her opinion on gaps in current legislation. The Australian Federal Police is the only agency authorised to refer a person to the Support for Trafficked People Program. Some survivors of human trafficking and slavery may be fearful of meeting with law enforcement officials and might remain ineligible for support. She discussed also broadening the visa criteria to facilitate the grant of a visa pathway for survivors of human trafficking and slavery who are unable to contribute to criminal investigations (for fear of reprisal, the safety of family in the country of origin). Currently, they must agree to assist with the prosecution of their trafficker or after an initial 45 days, their support is withdrawn. Another gap, stated Professor Burn, was the discrepancy between the states and territories of Australia in the financial compensation made available to survivors.  

Professor Redmond spoke in some detail about the UK Modern Slavery Act and its shortcomings from his point of view.

Two representatives of Australian businesses spoke next. Konica Minolta, a manufacturer of photocopiers, printers and diagnostic imaging systems were the presenters who brought us the story in the introduction to this blog.  It was one of their staff, on a ‘reward – incentive’ trip who witnessed and helped that Thai fisherman. Konica Minolta has had an ethical sourcing project for 18 months.

Other NGOs such as The Salvation Army’s Freedom Network, STOP THE TRAFFIK, Global Compact and Baptist World Aid presented, as did several other businesses such as Nestle, Wesfarmers and Woolworths. Other social responsibility organisations represented were Australian Ethical Investment and the Australian Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility. Presenters and the public came and went over the course of the day but Andrew Forrest returned to hear STOP THE TRAFFIK and Baptist World Aid present their submissions.

All submissions can be found at http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Foreign_Affairs_Defence_and_Trade/ModernSlavery. They make very interesting reading. The transcripts of these public hearing are or will be available as well. Those from the first hearing on May 30 can now be read or downloaded. I highly recommend attending one of the hearings if you can – a great opportunity to see one of the ways in which an idea can become an Act of Parliament which in this case will benefit millions. After several years of lobbying, a Modern Slavery Act for Australia is likely to become a reality perhaps by the end of 2017, even it has taken someone with the profile of Mr Forrest to give the process a push. 

By Libby Sorrell