Australia needs a comprehensive suite of new laws to stamp out modern slavery, a Federal committee’s report today tabled in Parliament has found.
The report by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade’s inquiry was tabled in Parliament on the final sitting day for the year.
It adds details to its earlier recommendations released in August.
The committee recommended provisions for a mandatory supply chain reporting requirement that requires large businesses to report on modern slavery risks in their supply chains.
Despite arguments from big business that the threshold should be greater than $100 million for mandatory reporting, the committee has recommended the threshold of $50 million in revenue.
“If you are a Woolworths or Coles and you’re sourcing a product, you need to look into your supply chain to ensure there is no modern slavery practices or labour exploitation, or debt bondage,” said Chris Crewther, chair of the committee.
“That will ensure there are not operators out there producing goods at a lower cost by doing the wrong thing, which puts out producers doing the right thing.”
The Walk Free Foundation estimated in 2016, 45.8 million people worldwide were trapped in some form of slavery.
The report recommended a national compensation scheme for victims of modern slavery.
Labour hire contractors to be registered
The new legislation will reach out to overseas orphanages to protect the 80 per cent of orphan children who, in reality, have a family.
Overseas residential care agencies would have to register with the Australian Government, and Australians who wished to donate or volunteer would be able to check the register.
Labour hire contractors would have to be licensed to tackle the problem of coerced or debt bonded workers living in slave-like conditions.
Mr Crewther said the committee had found significant difficulties in the horticulture area and wherever labour hire contractors had been used.
Visa reform needed
The committee said terrible conditions for backpackers extending their 417 visa by working 88 days in a regional area and people in Australia on student visas had prompted a recommendation on tied visas.
“Eliminating or reducing the tied aspect of visas which give employers or others a say over a sign-off for their employees, which can often lead to a person be willing to or not having a choice as to exploitation, just to have their visa signed off,” the committee said.
Attention has been given to Pacific islanders who have been exposed to exploitation through the Federal Government-sanctioned seasonal worker program.
The report has recommended eliminating employer sign-off, which had left workers vulnerable to the power of contractors controlling the visa conditions.
The report also recommended new Pacific liaison officers.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had already committed to introducing legislation to combat modern slavery “as soon as possible”.
Australia trying to improve on the UK model
The committee believes it will go down as one of the landmark reports of this Parliament that will help tackle modern slavery in Australia and around the world.
It follows laws pioneered in the UK with its Modern Slavery Act (2015) and California Transparency in Supply Chains Act (2010).
Australia joins a growing number of governments such as Britain, Hong Kong, France and The Netherlands facing calls for new laws on corporate responsibility.
The Government has identified more than 350 suspected victims of modern slavery in Australia since 2004, and advocacy groups say there are more than 4,000 people in Australia trapped by criminal syndicates that force them into prostitution or other work.
In a joint statement with Australian faith-based anti-slavery groups, universities and business groups, the Australian Human Rights Commissioner has supported a publicly-accessible registry of modern slavery statements.
Slavery hidden in plain sight on Australian farms
In the past 12 months, three Tongan workers have died and others have struggled on, living in squalid conditions, working for contractors who reduce their weekly pay by extracting travel and living costs.
The harsh living conditions prompted a Sydney school teacher to co-found the Tongan-Australian Seasonal Worker Association (TASWA).
Falepaini Maile said she visited her countrymen at Bowen, Tully, Mundubbera and Childers in Queensland and found unventilated shipping containers, slimy green water as the only drinking water source, toilets and showers with no doors where the women reported feeling unsafe.
They were also housed a long way from town, given no independent transport, and denied access to pastoral care.
Despite sometimes working 12 hour days, the Tongan workers were paid so poorly they survived on cheap noodles.
She said in the case of Paulo Kivalu who died in September 2016, his labour hire contractor had not paid superannuation for two years, leaving his widow and two young girls in Tonga with less than $1,500.