Australian companies could be forced to report on how they combat slavery

Federal government announces plans to make large companies report annually on measures they are taking to ensure their supply chains are free of exploitation

Large companies operating in Australia will be forced to publicly detail every year what they are doing to combat modern slavery, under a new proposal from the federal government.

The justice minister, Michael Keenan, announced plans on Wednesday to impose a legal requirement for companies with a turnover larger than $100m to publicly file a modern slavery report every year.

The report would detail what steps companies have taken to ensure their workers were not being exploited and that their supply chains were free of slavery, or the products of slave labour.

Reports would be published and would be required to be filed by the end of November each year.

Keenan said business, peak bodies, investors and civil society had been calling for a slavery reporting requirement.

Quick Guide -Modern-day slavery

“It will support the business community to respond more effectively to modern slavery, raise business awareness of the issue and create a level playing field for business to share information about what they are doing to eliminate modern slavery,” he said.

“Importantly, it will also encourage business to use their market influence to improve workplace standards and practices.”

Before introducing legislation the government will seek input from industry, the public and civil society on its consultation paper.

A parliamentary joint committee is currently inquiring into a Modern Slavery Act for Australia, based on the UK legislation and slated to include measures such as annual reporting and an independent anti-slavery commissioner.

The government’s proposal has been welcomed by anti-slavery groups and business bodies but condemned by Labor who argue the government had been “absolutely pathetic” in doing the bare minimum.

Jenny Stanger, national manager of The Salvation Army’s Freedom Partnership to End Modern Slavery, said the government’s announcement was significant “because such legislation shifts the responsibility from victims who struggle to be visible to people that can help to a proactive approach by business to find them in their supply chain and take corrective action”.

Stanger said the freedom partnership strongly supported the establishment of an independent anti-slavery commissioner – in the model of the UK’s commissioner – to co-ordinate and monitor Australia’s anti-slavery framework and investigate potential breaches.

Luke Geary, managing Partner of Salvos Legal, which offers free legal advice to victims of slavery, said he looked forward to working with business “to ensure clean supply chains can be meaningfully evidenced”.

“I am confident that Australian business is capable of world-class leadership and innovation in tackling modern slavery.”

The Walk Free Foundation founder Andrew Forrest said the reporting requirement would be a “game-changer” in the fight to end modern slavery.

“This is a tremendous decision and will be a major blow against slavery in the Asian region,” he said. “We know governments can’t defeat the insidious abuse of our fellow humans on their own. By enlisting the power of business, we can ensure that slavery is not part of the goods that Australians buy and consume.”

The Business Council chief executive, Jennifer Westacott, welcomed the government’s announcement.

“Greater global trade has boosted Australians’ living standards but it also increases the risk that products and services sold here are tainted by the use of forced labour,” she said. “Australians deserve to have confidence that their higher living standards have not come at the cost of human suffering.”

Westacott said business was open, too, to an independent oversight by an anti-slavery commissioner.

But Labor’s justice spokeswoman, Clare O’Neil, said it was “absolutely pathetic” the government would not impose penalties on big businesses who breached a Modern Slavery Act, she said.

“We should not be leaving it to big business to police themselves on slavery,” she said. “Without penalties, the act would be completely toothless.”

Labor has promised to punish those who breach the act and also establish an anti-slavery commissioner if elected.

Slavery includes human trafficking, debt bondage, and forced labour.

The Global Slavery Index estimates 45.8 million people are victims of the slave trade around the world, with two-thirds in the Asia-Pacific region.

It says 4,300 people are currently enslaved in Australia.

Within Australian supply chains, seafood retailers have been linked to slavery in southeast Asian fishing industries; surf and department store brands have been caught making clothes in offshore factories under slave-like conditions; and serious cases of worker exploitation have been reported in fruit farms across the country.

Australia has had slavery provisions in the commonwealth criminal code since 1999. But only 17 people have been convicted of slavery and people-trafficking offences, despite nearly 700 referrals to federal police since 2004. Most of the convictions and referrals relate to women trafficked into sexual slavery.

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