When the Australian government introduced its Modern Slavery Bill to parliament in 2018, it heralded it as the start of a “race to the top”.
But it has turned out to be less a race than a meander.
The bill required companies with annual revenues greater than $100 million to report on action they take to ensure their supply chains are free of slave labour. The premise was that transparency and accountability were enough to drive reform.
“Business feedback indicates the primary driver for compliance will be investor pressure and reputational costs and benefits,” a government spokeswoman said at the time. “This will drive compliance more effectively than legislated penalties and encourage a business-led race to the top”.
That bill was passed in December 2018. But so far, according to research published last month by the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors, most companies are engaged in a “race to the middle”, disclosing only the minimum and not wishing to reveal more than their key peers.
Could more be done?
Yes — but the possibilities and pitfalls are shown by a private member’s bill that passed the Senate this week.
Proposed by South Australian independent senator Rex Patrick, the Customs Amendment (Banning Goods Produced By Forced Labour) Bill 2021 would amend federal customs regulations to prohibit the import of any goods made using forced labour.
It passed the Senate on Monday with support from the Labor Party, the Greens and One Nation senators. But Coalition senators voted against the bill. This was despite it reflecting the recommendations of a inquiry chaired by Liberal senator Eric Abetz, who said Patrick’s bill was “worthy of consideration and support, in principle”.
Without government support the bill won’t pass the House of Representatives to become law. Nonetheless, it is worth considering why senators as disparate as the Greens and One Nation have backed it. Despite the Modern Slavery Act, there’s much more to be done before Australians can be confident the goods they buy are free of slave labour.
The call for a stronger approach
Patrick began with less expansive ambitions, introducing a bill in December 2020 to ban the import of goods from China produced by Uyghur forced labour.
This was in response to mounting evidence of the Chinese government’s detention of more than a million Uyghurs (and other ethnic minorities) in the western province of Xinjiang, forcing them to work making goods sold by Western companies.Planet Labs/AP,
Patrick’s bill was referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, chaired Abetz. After considering about 60 submissions, in June the committee recommended (among other things) amending the Customs Act and other legislation “to prohibit the import of any goods made wholly or in part with forced labour, regardless of geographic origin”.
The committee endorses without reservation the objectives of the bill. The state-sponsored forced labour to which the Uyghur people are being subjected by the Chinese dictatorship is a grave human rights violation. It is incumbent on the government to take steps to ensure that Australian businesses and consumers are not in any way complicit in these egregious abuses.
Slavery is all around us
Patrick’s revised bill reflects this sentiment.
While the Chinese government may be detaining up to a million Uyghurs, the anti-slavery organisation Walk Free Foundation estimates globally about 4 million people are forced to work by state authorities, with further 21 million people exploited in private supply chains.
The foundation estimates each year goods worth more than US$350 billion (about $A480 billion) imported into G20 countries are at at-risk of having been produced, at least in part, by forced labour.