Peter Khalil: I also rise to speak on the Modern Slavery Bill 2018, because the fact is that there are more people trapped in slavery in the world today than there have been at any other time in human history. That’s a very disturbing fact. It seems unbelievable, but it is true. I rise to speak on this bill very proudly, because many of my constituents in my electorate of Wills have a very strong social conscience and many have been writing to me about the implementation of a modern slavery act for many, many months.
The Walk Free Foundation estimates that there are 40.3 million victims of modern slavery worldwide. Two-thirds of these are in the Asia-Pacific region. We have come so far on so many things, and yet in our own region, in our own suburbs and in our own communities trafficking and slavery are still occurring. It’s true to say, and I think the previous speakers have touched on this, that Australia has a critical role, frankly, to play in fighting modern slavery. Trafficking and modern slavery are hidden problems that will not be eradicated without meaningful attempts to expose them. It is our responsibility to do so. It is our responsibility to do everything in our power to prevent human trafficking and exploitation, so a strong, effective modern slavery act as an integral part of that responsibility.
It’s our moral responsibility to our fellow human beings to do whatever we can to prevent human rights abuses and exploitation. That is why tackling slavery and exploitation is core to Labor’s mission to protect the vulnerable, to protect workers and to implement and enforce human rights. I’m proud to stand with a party that is so committed to doing so. That’s why last year the Labor Party announced our modern slavery policy, a policy that was welcomed by business, civil society and the union movement. I want to acknowledge all the work that was done by our shadow minister for justice, Clare O’Neil, and the commitment that she’s shown to this policy in introducing it and announcing it publicly.
But tackling slavery must be above politics. That is why Labor has called on the government to match our commitment in establishing the act. We further called on the government to match the commitment to a transparency-in-supply-chain mechanism that contains penalties for noncompliance and to an independent antislavery commissioner. In putting forward this particular bill, the government have finally agreed—they caved in, if you want to put it that way—but have neglected to include the penalties for companies that breach the proposed act. They have also chosen to have what’s called a business engagement unit rather than have an independent antislavery commissioner.
A modern slavery act must have penalties for noncompliance. It’s a no-brainer. The coalition had an opportunity during the Turnbull government and now under the Morrison government to work with us in a bipartisan fashion on this bill and to match the commitments that we made when we announced our policy. Frankly, the government’s commitment is weak, and we can’t afford to be weak on human rights abuses. The government can and must do better. Combating slavery cannot be optional—there is no excuse for that—but unfortunately it’s not very surprising coming from a government that has continued to prove itself really useless at regulating big business. We should not be leaving it to big business to police themselves on slavery.
Penalties, therefore, are vital to the success of this act. The experts know this and have been absolutely clear about it. In submissions to the Senate inquiry, the ACTU, Anti-Slavery Australia, the Human Rights Law Centre, Oxfam and many other organisations all spoke of the importance of penalties in effectively exposing and preventing human trafficking and exploitation. The Australian Council of Trade Unions, the ACTU, said in their submission:
The absence of sanctions seriously undermines the effectiveness of the reporting requirements for the purposes of fighting modern slavery.
Anti-Slavery Australia wrote:
The serious risk of human trafficking and slavery being supported and hidden by complex supply chains necessitates a stronger regulatory framework.
Oxfam’s submission put it simply when they said:
Without penalties for non-compliance, there is a real risk that companies will not report …
The overwhelming majority of stakeholders have called for penalties to be included in this bill. It is on this clear advice that we will be moving amendments to introduce penalties for failing to comply with any modern slavery act. It is also on the advice of these independent experts that we move amendments to institute an independent antislavery commissioner. A commissioner will work with victims, assist businesses to establish and protect transparency in supply chains and work to prevent and detect slavery in Australia. A commissioner will provide independent assessments, uninfluenced by other interests, on the effectiveness of the government’s actions to fight slavery. It will scrutinise the government’s work to tackle modern slavery.
But the government has once again prioritised protecting big business over the estimated 4,300 people who are trapped in slavery in Australia today. This decision, against all advice, to propose a business engagement unit in place of an independent commissioner, makes it perfectly clear that protecting themselves and protecting big business is their primary concern when their primary concern should be the thousands of people in Australia who are trapped in slavery and exploitation.
We call on the government to establish an independent antislavery commissioner. We call on the government to prioritise the victims, not a support unit for big business. It has been seen in the United Kingdom that the institution of an independent commissioner meant more victims identified, more proactive police investigations undertaken, more prosecutions and convictions achieved—substantive results. It has been seen in similar legislation in France, in the US state of California and across the European Union that the evidence backs in the importance and the critical role of an independent commissioner. The stakes, frankly, are too high to ignore those facts. It is clear that a modern slavery act will be weaker without an independent antislavery commissioner, and a business engagement unit is an utterly inadequate alternative.
The government have before them an opportunity to markedly strengthen the accountability framework of the bill and they are missing it. The victims of slavery in Australia deserve better. These amendments cannot be optional if this bill is to be effective. It is a complex and nuanced issue; we all know that. It cannot be taken lightly or without the proper advice. That is exactly why Labor took the time to consult with stakeholders about concerns the bill includes forced marriage as one of the forms of exploitation required to be reported on by business. It is also why Labor has committed to overhauling Australia’s response to forced marriage. I want to acknowledge the work of our shadow minister for justice, the member for Hotham, Clare O’Neil, on this particular aspect of the policy work as well.
Forced marriage is an issue that needs to be dealt with properly, not flippantly, so if the government want to actually address it, they should match Labor’s forced marriage policy commitment to establish forced marriage protection orders and a forced marriage unit to connect victims with the appropriate services and agencies that can assist them. Clearly, Australia’s current approach to forced marriage is not working. Something has to change. But the inclusion of forced marriage in the modern slavery act may drive forced marriage underground, so it needs to be handled with care and in consultation with the experts, just as Labor’s comprehensive commitment does. A Shorten Labor government, if elected, will ensure we lead a coordinated national response to combatting the practice of forced marriage. It will ensure that an overhaul of Australia’s response to modern slavery, trafficking, human rights abuses and forced marriage. Our policy commits us to stamping out these atrocious practices. It is focused on prevention and on the support of vulnerable victims.
Today, I speak to this bill and, as many of the previous speakers on our side have, call on the Morrison government to match the Labor Party’s commitments in this policy area. Again, I call on the government to listen to the advice of expert stakeholders who know firsthand what is necessary for real and effective change. We all, I know, speak on this bill because there are more people trapped in slavery in the world today than there have been at any other time in human history, a terrible statistic. An Australian modern slavery act will ensure that Australia is at the forefront in the fight against modern slavery.