Facts & figures

  • In 2023, modern slavery
    is still a multi-billion-dollar global industry
  • Approximately 27.6 million
    people are engaged in forced labour worldwide
  • In 2018, the Modern Slavery Act
    was passed – but more meaningful change is needed
Tougher modern slavery laws are needed to reduce exploitation in Australian business operations and their supply chains, says the Director of UNSW’s Australian Human Rights Institute.

The federal government must urgently reform our modern slavery laws if we want to end human rights abuses in Australian businesses, says Professor Justine Nolan, Director of the Australian Human Rights Institute at UNSW.

Modern slavery is a multi-billion-dollar global industry that includes forced labour, human trafficking and exploitative work practices. Australia needs an independent regulator and stronger laws to reduce modern slavery in our market economy, says Professor Nolan.

“Modern slavery is a growing phenomenon. Today almost 27.6 million people are engaged in forced labour worldwide, that’s more than during the continental slave trade,” the modern slavery expert says. “Many of the goods we use are still being produced through exploitative supply chains.” 

In Australia, modern slavery can occur in the domestic operations of Australian businesses, within international supply chains used to produce Australian goods, and in the production of goods imported into Australia through global trade. 

The Modern Slavery Act, passed in 2018, introduced annual reporting mandates for entities with more than $100 million in annual revenue.  

“It asks companies to look at their supply chains, wherever they are … [and] to improve working conditions, from the moment of gathering raw materials to the distribution and sale of a product,” says Prof. Nolan. While the act encourages greater transparency and awareness, it lacks the authority and resourcing required to effect meaningful change, she says. 

“An independent anti-slavery commissioner would support compliance, foster continual improvement and ideally mandate that Australian businesses undertake human rights due diligence,” she says.

“Through greater governance and industry collaboration, Australian businesses can operate as a transformative force for good to help end exploitation and provide justice for vulnerable workers.”

Professor Justine Nolan

Human rights due diligence asks companies to proactively identify and address human rights abuses in their business operations; its implementation will require resource commitments from companies if it is to be effective. Prof. Nolan is actively engaging with companies to implement more effective measures. She recently travelled to Brazil to examine how a company is engaging with workers to preserve the environment and improve working conditions by tracing a rubber supply chain back to the source in the Amazon. 

Prof. Nolan’s research focuses on the intersection of human rights and business, providing an evidence base to support policy reform. She has been a key driver of the Australian business and human rights movement for the last 25 years. She was appointed to the Government’s Modern Slavery Expert Advisory Group in 2020 and is advising business and government on policy and industry reforms needed to strengthen our response to modern slavery. 

She is part of a consortium of academics and human rights organisations that issued an urgent call to better equip the Modern Slavery Act to steer business action following research revealing its ineffectiveness

The Australian Human Rights Institute conducted the review, Testing the effectiveness of Australia’s Modern Slavery Act, in partnership with Baptist World Aid Australia, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, Human Rights Law Centre, Business and Human Rights Centre (RMIT), University of Melbourne, University of Notre Dame Australia and University of Western Australia. 

The two-year project was funded by the Australian Federal Government’s five-year National Action Plan to Combat Modern Slavery. The research focused on four industries identified as high-risk for modern slavery: the garments industry in China, rubber gloves in Malaysia, seafood in Thailand and fresh produce in Australia.

“Our research revealed an urgent need to better empower [and resource] the government bodies responsible for these laws to ensure greater compliance and effectiveness,” she says. “The Act is currently under review, providing an opportune time for introducing evidence-driven holistic reform.”

The research team analysed business statements as well as conducting surveys, focus groups and consultation with business and government to provide insights and policy recommendations informed by different stakeholder perspectives. 

“What was startling was that more than 50% of companies failed to identify that there was any risk of modern slavery in their supply chains which shows that the way the law is crafted is not working." 

Professor Justine Nolan

The report found, for example, that despite extensive research and media coverage of state repression of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang in northwest China, including systemic programs of forced labour, 72% of the garment companies assessed failed to disclose the risk of modern slavery in their supply chains.

“While there may be political or commercial reasons for failing to mention this in a company’s statement, the failure to disclose this key risk again highlights weaknesses in the Act’s focus on transparency as a primary means to tackle modern slavery in supply chains,” she says.

The follow-up report in 2022 showed that has been an increase of just six percent of companies improving their response to modern slavery with 56 per cent of companies’ commitments to improve their modern slavery responses remaining unfulfilled.

A lack of consequences further weakens the law, Prof. Nolan says. There are no penalties for non-reporting, and company reports do not need to be audited or assured by external bodies. 66 per cent of companies are still failing to comply with the basic reporting requirements, the research found. 

“We formally regulate all kinds of other mandates on companies – for example, tax law – why wouldn’t we do it for modern slavery?” she says. “The evidence is clear. Reporting alone is not going to tackle the problem. We need laws that demand companies take concrete action against modern slavery – action that is mandated, measurable and timebound.” 

Providing evidence-driven policy recommendations to combat risk

In 2022, the Labor party made an election promise to strengthen current laws and establish an independent anti-slavery commissioner on the basis of the review. The Attorney General, Mark Dreyfus, reiterated this commitment at the eighth Bali Process ministerial conference in February where Australian and Indonesian government representatives met with senior officials and business leaders to tackle exploitation, smuggling and human trafficking. 

Following the review, the research team will present its good-practice toolkit and policy recommendations to government and business. The toolkit will highlight progress made across diverse sectors, identifying business responses that are potentially replicable, scalable and transferable to help combat modern slavery more broadly, she says.

“For example, Woolworths Group has established a partnership with the United Workers Union aimed at understanding and addressing risks faced by vulnerable workers to improve labour-hire standards in its supply chain,” she says. “It also reported that it engages with workers directly through onsite visits by its teams, surveys and meetings with unions and worker representatives.” 

The recommendations also highlight the need for greater avenues for exploited workers and victims of trafficking to access justice. 

“Australia is now out of step with other countries and regions, such as the United States and the European Union, who have implemented more forceful legislation, or have draft laws pending, and Australian business is lagging behind responsible corporate behaviour elsewhere,” she says. 

In 2022, the US passed a forced labour law that presumes any goods imported into the US from Xinjiang, China, are the products of forced labour. “Australia should also introduce a forced labour import ban that places the onus on companies to show that there's no risk of forced labour [in their supply chains but with one key difference],” she says. 

While Xinjiang is a contemporary example of state-sponsored forced labour on a massive scale, forced labour is not confined to one region, she says. “There’s slavery in Australia, in America, in Thailand… Rather regionally focused, the ban should target forced labour wherever it occurs,” she says.

In the Australian fresh produce industry, for example, work is often done by transient labour – students on visas, backpackers, migrant workers – with workers paid piecemeal rates rather than minimum wage. “There’s [also] a lack of oversight of working conditions; those workers are often some of our most vulnerable people,” she says. 

Exploitative conditions can include long hours, underpayment of wages, unpaid overtime and threats of coercion, she says. “The transition from exploitation to modern slavery is not a hard line: modern slavery exists on a continuum. Companies need to ensure from the start that their working conditions don’t exploit workers, so [the situation] doesn't disintegrate and generate worse working conditions which could lead to slavery.”


Written by Kay Harrison

 

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