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Human rights coalition calls on federal government to strengthen modern slavery laws

Modern Slavery Plea

In an open letter to the Albanese government, a coalition consisting of 41 human rights advocates and academics has urged political leaders to address major issues with Australia’s Modern Slavery Act and the proposed new anti-slavery commissioner role.

Addressing Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus KC MP, the coalition asks for laws to be strengthened, requiring large companies to address modern slavery risks in their global operations and supply chains.

The Modern Slavery Act 2018, which came into effect on 1st January 2019, heralded a new mandatory modern slavery reporting requirement for companies operating in Australia with a minimum annual consolidated revenue of $100 million.

Citing an independent statutory review of the Modern Slavery Act, which was presented to parliament last year and led by Professor John McMillan AO, the coalition says that the Act has “not yet caused meaningful change”.

Analysing the Act’s initial three years, the review made 30 recommendations in a bid to strengthen corporate modern slavery responses and regulatory oversight.

These included:

  • Introducing penalties for non-compliance with statutory reporting obligations
  • Lowering the reporting threshold for businesses to address modern slavery risks from $100 million to $50 million
  • Amending the Act to mandate greater due diligence by entities in their operations and supply chains
  • Strengthening administration of the Act by enhancing the processes for submitting and reviewing Modern Slavery Statements through legislative amendments and procedural improvements

The federal government has yet to provide a formal response.

As reported by PASA in June, the review raised several important points for procurement, including the need to ensure that ethical practices are tied to procurement culture, policy and processes and for a code of conduct to be attached as part of contract appendices.

In the open letter, the coalition urged the government to:

  • Respond to the review recommendations as soon as possible
  • Introduce a due diligence obligation for reporting entities under the Act in addition to penalties for non-compliance
  • Strengthen the powers, independence and resourcing of the Commissioner (in particular in relation to enforcement, investigation and complaint handling) in the ASC Bill and also revisit the Commissioner’s role when the wider reforms to the Act are introduced

Commenting on the coalition’s open letter, Keren Adams, Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre said every person should be able to work in freedom and dignity, without threats of violence, coercion or abuse. 

“We know that in Australia today, up to 41,000 people are estimated to be living and working in conditions of modern slavery. By strengthening Australia’s modern slavery laws and establishing a strong independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, the Albanese Government can support people who are victim survivors of modern slavery, drive change in corporate practices and ensure no Australian companies are profiting from exploitation,” she said.

Carolyn Kitto, Co-Director at Be Slavery Free added, “In 2018 we boasted that we were leading the world in our actions on modern slavery – and we were. We can no longer make that claim. It is one thing to have good legislation; it is another thing to actually decide that you’re going to put in place the things that make that legislation actionable and enforceable.”

Read the open letter here.

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