Alana Matheson | Senate Inquiry – Defence and Trade inquiry into Adopting a Modern Slavery Act in Australia

01 Aug 2017 |

Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry – Opening Statement
Opening statement to the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade inquiry into Adopting a Modern Slavery Act in Australia
Alana Matheson, Deputy Director | Workplace Relations

Melbourne | 1 August 2017

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The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry thanks the Committee for this opportunity to address it in relation to the important issue of modern slavery and welcomes the exploration of policy responses and efforts intended to eradicate forced and compulsory labour globally. As noted in our written submission, business has driven and continues to drive economic and social progress at the domestic and international levels including through engagement with the International Labour Organisation for almost a century.

International initiatives to combat slavery provide helpful context to guide this important discussion. In particular ILO Convention 29 defines forced or compulsory labour as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself [or herself] voluntarily”.

This definition is consistent with the conduct targeted by the UK Modern Slavery Act 2015 being circumstances where a person holds another person in slavery or servitude or requires them to perform forced and compulsory labour, and knows or ought to know that this is the case.

These definitions help to sharpen the policy focus in combatting conduct of a most serious and unacceptable kind.

Australia ratified the ILO’s forced labour convention in 1932, 85 years ago, and has reported to the ILO the measures we take through domestic law and practice to eliminate forced and compulsory labour. This occurs primarily through criminal laws set and enforced at the state level that protect against the violence, coercion and compulsion that comprise the force element of forced labour. Specific laws are also targeted at people smuggling and sexual servitude.

The Australian Chamber approaches this inquiry from the perspective of business in Australia and welcomes a discussion about:

  • What more can be done to eliminate forced and compulsory labour from our region and from the world; as well as
  • Ways to encourage Australia’s largest businesses to demonstrate leadership in reviewing their international operations and suppliers to identify and address any exposure to, or reliance upon, forced labour.

Business leadership can be a powerful force for driving change and it is important that policy solutions encourage this. It is also important to guard against legislative prescription that could risk undermining this goal.

In our written submission we have identified a number of principles that we consider should guide the process of strengthening Australia’s response to modern slavery. In particular:

  • This process should seek to harness the good will and increasing energy of corporate Australia in this area. As an initial step, consideration could be given to a framework that encourages voluntary public reporting so that efforts to identify and address the risk of slavery in supply chains are acknowledged. We believe this will harness competition to drive innovative approaches. Government could assist in the creation of a public and searchable repository for reporting to enable competitor benchmarking and transparency.
  • Any Australian reporting system should enable companies already reporting under other comparable global systems to apply those efforts in satisfaction of any requirements arising from the Australian system. If legislation mandating reporting is introduced in Australia we consider it should be closely modelled on appropriate parts of the UK legislation.
  • Anti-slavery measures should also be properly focused on addressing compulsory and forced labour as defined in ILO convention 29 and not be used for other purposes.
  • Any modern slavery reporting obligations should be confined to Australia’s largest businesses most exposed to risks in this area internationally and most able to do something meaningful to address those risks. Large companies may deal with thousands of suppliers so it is also important that reporting enables entities to target efforts toward areas where they assess the risk of forced labour to be the greatest.

The Australian Chamber considers that the greatest gains in addressing modern slavery concerns in from the perspective of the formal businesses we represent will come from organisation driven rather than compliance drive efforts. Should legislation be enacted it should not be prescriptive and it should be designed in a way that takes into account the reality that different businesses will encounter different levels of risk exposure. Importantly any legislation should not stand in the way of innovative, industry and enterprise led approaches designed to combat the risk of slavery in a considered, tailored and effective way and should be subject to further consultation to ensure this outcome.

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