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Slaves get little reprieve from flaccid new law

Slaves get little reprieve from flaccid new law

Slaves get little reprieve from flaccid new law

The federal parliament looks set to introduce a local Modern Slavery law that will not stop – and will barely impact on – the problem of people being forced to work as slaves in Australia and throughout the world.

The flaccid new law introduces mandatory reporting for the very Big End of Town (companies with over $100m revenue), and sets up a ‘modern slavery business engagement unit’ to try to help smaller companies stop slavery in their supply chains.

The irony is that the government has costed the impost of the new law on the business community (about $22,000 for each company which reports) but gives no estimate for how much modern slavery costs an individual, which is likely to be at least as much as $22,000 per person per year.

The UN says up to 25 million modern slavery victims are exploited annually in global supply chains, including slaves who work for big computer and clothing companies that are household names. More than 4000 people in Australia are believed to be suffering slavery or slave-like conditions in brothels, restaurants and other fast-cash venues.

Victims are also enslaved in mines and factories, on construction sites, fishing boats and farms, and in private homes around the world. Their exploitation involves serious crimes and grave human rights abuses and taints the goods and services that we use every day, the government says.

In the face of this worldwide problem, the new Australian law demanding annual reports of compliance will only apply to companies that have $100m consolidated revenue globally a year. The thousands of small clothing businesses who operate on the back of overseas slave labour are let off scot free – anyone under the $100m figure can provide an annual report if they wish. You can imagine how many small businesses will make reports to government if they don’t  have to!

What the new law should do – but doesn’t – is to:

  • provide an independent statutory anti-slavery officer;
  • introduce penalties if companies don’t provide reports;
  • lower the reporting threshold from $100 million in consolidated revenue to something around $1m to catch the small business crooks exploiting people;
  • opening up the right to FOI requests of any companies reasonably suspected to be connected with modern slavery;
  • compensating victims of trafficking and slavery in and/or connected with business in Australia;
  • harmonise Australian law addressing modern slavery with that overseas; and
  • give early warning that in three years the Modern Slavery law will be beefed up even more.

After inquiries around the world, and many sittings in Australia, the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee of parliament in August 2018 recommended the bill be passed into law.


 Modern slavery include trafficking in persons, slavery, slavery-like practices (including forced labour and forced marriage) and the worst forms of child labour (including using children for prostitution or in hazardous work), according to the Australian government.

The new Australian law is supposed to help. It is modelled on wimpish British law, and will be a companion to a relatively new law in NSW.

The federal law requires Australian businesses take “proactive and effective actions” to address modern slavery, including by eliminating it from operators overseas supplying goods and services into the Australian market.

The government also wants to educate consumers and investors about the risks of modern slavery practices, so they are better able to make informed decisions about what to buy…or what not to buy.

The task looks likely to fall to a Modern Slavery Business Engagement Unit within the Department of Home Affairs which will “address” modern slavery risks in their supply chains. How it will “address” them is not specified.

The 2018 Federal Budget committed $3.6m to establish and administer this unit from January 2018 to June 2022. To do any decent sort of job would require about three times that amount, but governments in recent years have been generous to police, military and security entities only, not to those involved with rights and liberties.

The committee’s formal recommendations include the government:

  • “work towards” creating a ist of firms and publishing standards: this will be part of testing ”the proposition that ‘reputational risk’ is a sufficient motivator for reporting entities to comply with the requirements of the Act’”
  • publishing which companies file reports
  • appointing a slavery superman/woman
  • waiting three years before deciding whether a mandatory reporting regime is needed and
  • pulling the laws and provisions which discuss modern slavery into one document.




Report of the committee:              


Submission by Civil Liberties Australia: 

(see Submission No 78)

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