9 Oct 18

Australian anti-slavery legislation creates threat of public shaming, but fails to appoint a commissioner part II

Australian anti-slavery legislation creates threat of public shaming, but fails to appoint a commissioner part II

In June 2018, the Australian Senate promised to pass a bill which the government says will demonstrate the nation’s global leadership in combating modern-day slavery, a sign ethical practice in supply chains continues to be thrust into the public eye.

If passed later this year, the bill will force companies with revenue of more than A$100 million (£56 million) a year to report on how they are preventing slavery being used in their supply chains, a move expected to affect around 3,000 businesses.

Although campaigners see the Modern Slavery Bill as a step forward, they had hoped for more. As such, it’s worth noting what the Bill does not do. It does not propose fines or other punitive measures on businesses which fail to comply, while at the same time, the government has turned down the opportunity to create an independent statutory anti-slavery commissioner.

The legislation follows the UK’s introduction of The Modern Slavery Act in 2015. The threshold for reporting is lower than the Australian proposals, at £36 million revenue. It also appointed a commissioner, Kevin Hyland, although in May 2018 he announced his intention to step down and the government is still seeking a replacement. The UK law does not require public bodies to report slavery in their supply chains, which the Australian law is set to do.

Following the publication of the Australian bill, campaigners set out their misgivings. 

Oxfam Australia economic policy adviser Joy Kyriacou told Reuters that there should be penalties for companies that don’t comply or that give false or incorrect information. She said a similar lack of penalties in the UK meant “a very minimal number of companies that are due to report under the Modern Slavery Act have reported at all”.

However, this does not mean the legislation will have no teeth. Since it defines reporting standards, it will become easily apparent to the public and campaigners which companies are taking modern-day slavery seriously, and which are not. Companies have always faced the threat of being shamed in public for their supply chain practice. Now the new legislation means companies that fail to comply will automatically come under suspicion. Firms which are exposed in this way can see a dramatic decline in both share price and sales.

State of Flux’s managing director Australia and New Zealand Kate Nicholl helped inform the Australian legislation by making a submission to senators, as well as answering their questions in a hearing, as part of her role as researcher and lecturer at the University of Melbourne.

She says that while there is a real threat to businesses from public shaming of those that do not comply with the law, some are still struggling to find the best way forward. Leadership from a commissioner would help.

“Any legislation which helps work towards ridding the world of slavery is a step in right direction and will help make organisations accountable to the public, but it is a real shame the government has not decided to appoint a commissioner at this stage.

“What I see, both in working with State of Flux and the University of Melbourne, is that all businesses are trying to tackle this independently. There is no standard or benchmark to work towards. An anti-slavery commissioner could act, not just to enforce compliance but also as a central body to help guide businesses and shape their strategies. They could provide a focus for collaboration to ensure businesses are not all making the same mistakes but learning from each other,” Nicholl says.  

The government will have the opportunity to correct this oversight and appoint an anti-slavery commissioner when the legislation is up for review in three years’ time, Nicholl says.