Australian law makers support FLEX’s calls for tough measures to tackle modern slavery

Blog13 Dec 2017

In a report published last week, law makers have called for tough measures to prevent human trafficking for labour exploitation in Australia, echoing many recommendations made by Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX). The Australian Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade were tasked with making recommendations to establish a Modern Slavery Act for Australia earlier this year, and FLEX submitted wide ranging evidence to the inquiry.

In line with FLEX’s recommendations the committee called for the proposed Australian Modern Slavery Act to include: clear offences relating to modern slavery detailed in a single piece of legislation; an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner; a mandatory supply chain reporting requirement for certain companies and government bodies; new victim support measures including a national compensation scheme; and steps to tackle vulnerabilities created by migrant visa frameworks and the poor oversight of migrant labour.

Recognising the vulnerability created by the terms of tied visas for migrant workers, the Committee recommend that the Australian Government ‘urgently review Australia’s visa framework for migrants to replace or eliminate ‘tied’ visa conditions’. The protection of migrant workers is key to the fight against modern slavery and FLEX has previously called on the Australian Government to reduce the vulnerability of migrant workers whose visas tie them to their employers. Tied visas restrict workers’ ability to change their employer and therefore make them particularly vulnerable to labour abuses as they are unable to leave exploitative conditions. The Committee further recommend a monitoring scheme to ensure that visa schemes do not create vulnerability to exploitation and modern slavery. In the UK context, FLEX has called for a similar mechanism to be introduced by the Government to ensure that new visa schemes after Brexit do not increase workers’ risks of being exploited at work.

In line with FLEX’s recommendations, the Committee urges the Australian Government to establish an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner under the proposed Modern Slavery Act. The Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner should be responsible for monitoring, measuring and improving the Government’s response to modern slavery, and must be given sufficient resources to effectively engage in these activities.

Corporate accountability measures also feature prominently in the report. The Committee recommends that the Modern Slavery Act should include a transparency in supply chains provision, requiring businesses to report on modern slavery risks in their supply chains and to detail how they are addressing such risks. The Committee also echoes FLEX’s call for Australia to go further than the UK by requiring government bodies to report and to exclude contractors who have not complied with the reporting requirement from public procurement processes. As FLEX has previously argued, this would allow the Government to use their leverage as a large buyer of goods and services to address exploitation in supply chains.

The effectiveness of a transparency clause, however, will depend on the ability to monitor and enforce the reporting requirement. In the UK, companies are currently not penalised for failing to report. The Committee recommends that the Australian Government should publish a list of companies required to report, alongside a central register of statements. Importantly, they recommend that the Government should introduce penalties for those businesses that fail to report and that the proceeds from these penalties are used to support victims of modern slavery. FLEX has long been calling for such measures to be adopted in the UK, and hope that the Australian Government will use this opportunity to design a Modern Slavery Act with strong enforcement mechanisms.

In our recent report, Risky Business, FLEX highlighted the importance of proactive labour market enforcement to address labour exploitation. Recognising this, the Committee recommends that the Australian Government should establish a licensing scheme for labour providers. Research by the Labour Exploitation Advisory Group (LEAG) and FLEX has shown that long employment chains increases the risk of labour exploitation. Confusing employment relationships act as a barrier for workers to raise grievances and complicates accountability. Licensing labour providers, therefore, could be key to address such exploitation at an earlier stage. The success of this scheme, however, will depend on adequate resourcing. In line with FLEX’s recommendations, the Committee has called for additional resources to the Australian Fairwork Ombudsman. The level of resourcing must allow the Ombudsman to carry out proactive investigations and provide advice on employment rights.

The recent report by the Australian Joint Standing Committee is a step forward towards a meaningful Modern Slavery Act for Australia. FLEX encourages the Australian Government to act on the Committee’s recommendations. At the same time, we urge the UK Government to use the Australian process as an opportunity to review its own Modern Slavery Act and to commit to strengthening migrant workers’ rights and improving enforcement of corporate accountability mechanisms.