Response to modern slavery law disappointing, report finds
When the government brought in the Modern Slavery Act in January 2019, it was hailed as a critical first step by Australia towards tackling the global problem of modern slavery.
The government proclaimed it would transform the way businesses respond to modern slavery by requiring companies to report on how they take effective action to address the risks of slavery in their operations and supply chains.
However, new figures reveal that the early impact of the Act is disappointing.
What is modern slavery?
Forced labour, underpaid work and slavery are endemic in the world. (For more information please see Modern slavery – what can be done?)
In Australia, slavery includes people being forced to work with little or no pay in shops, restaurants, factories or on farms, or in homes as cleaners or carers, in order to repay debts or fulfil visa requirements.
Many products sold in Australia are made by people overseas who are forced to work in slavery-type conditions.
According to the Global Slavery Index, in 2016 there were 40.3 million people living in slavery around the world, with 71 per cent of them being women and girls. Of the total, 15.4 million were in forced marriages and 24.9 million in forced labour.
Anti-slavery organisation Walk Free estimates there are 15,000 people kept in slave-like conditions in Australia, but only one in five victims are uncovered.
Responsibilities of businesses to report on risk of modern slavery
Under the Act, all businesses with a consolidated revenue of more than $100 million operating in Australia must report annually on the risk of modern slavery in their operations, and on the actions they have taken to address those risks.
Those annual reports are kept by the government in a public repository administered by the Australian Border Force. (Please see Online Register for Modern Slavery Statements.)
There are no penalties for businesses which do not file a report, but the government can name them publicly.
Impact of the Modern Slavery Act
A report on the impact of the first two years of the Act by the Human Rights Law Centre, called Paper Promises? found the majority of companies are not identifying even the most obvious risks of slavery in their operations.
The report looked at responses submitted to the government’s Modern Slavery Register by 102 companies which sourced inputs from four specific sectors with known risks of modern slavery: garments from China, rubber gloves from Malaysia, seafood from Thailand and fresh produce from Australia.
According to the report, only one in four companies had fully addressed the reporting requirements. Most responses were superficial and incomplete. Half the companies failed to identify risks of slavery in their operations. Only a third could show they took some action against slavery risks.
The report concluded: “Many company statements remain mere ‘paper promises’ with little evidence of effective action in the areas most likely to improve conditions for workers.”
Modern Slavery Act to be reviewed in 2022
The Act is to be reviewed in 2022 and there may be a need for penalties or sanctions for entities that avoid slavery reporting obligations.
There could also be a need for an independent anti-slavery commissioner to oversee Australia’s efforts to eradicate slavery.