Modern slavery – an issue for Australia?

This article originally appeared on Huffington Post.

By Fiona David

On this Australia Day, anti-slavery campaigner Andrew Forrest is one of seven incredible candidates for the prestigious honour of Australian of the Year. While Mr. Forrest’s personal efforts to root out slavery in his own company’s supply chains have drawn much needed attention to the issue, the perception of most Australians remains that slavery is either a relic of the past or someone else’s problem.

The sobering reality is that modern slavery affects all of us, whether through the food we buy, the clothes we wear or the electronics we use every day. Modern slavery can impact our lives in seemingly innocuous but important ways. Almost all canned tuna sold in Australia comes from Thailand – a country that has recently faced sanctions from both the European Union and the United States, because of well documented, widespread forced labour in its fisheries. According to research conducted by labour auditing experts Verite, one in three foreign workers in the Malaysian electronics industry is in forced labour.

We are fortunate that modern slavery is not common place in Australian society. But it is also not as rare as you might think. The Global Slavery Index, which provides bi-annual statistics on the prevalence of slavery around the world, estimates up to 4300 people are enslaved in Australia. As more attention has gone to the issue, reports of slavery related offences have steadily increased over the last twelve years. In the last two years alone, the number of slavery-related Australian Federal Police investigations have more than doubled. Despite this trend and all that we know about why victims don’t come forward—fear, shame, unawareness of rights—only 311 individuals have been referred onto the Government’s Support Program for victims of modern slavery. Even if the GSI’s estimates are high, this represents a significant gap.

Are the numbers of identified victims so low because this crime rarely happens here? Or perhaps we are not looking in the right places, in the right ways with the right partners?

Australia has received international recognition for its anti-slavery efforts – and deserves to be commended for those – but we can and must do more. The low identification rate and consequently the low conviction rate are matters of serious concern. Similarly, it is beggars belief that in 2017, Australians might be inadvertently contributing to slavery through the goods and services they buy.

With so much anti-slavery work taking place globally, there is unprecedented opportunity to look outwards, to learn and build upon what others are doing, and frankly, avoid others’ mistakes as well.

One model that deserves a close look is the recently enacted UK Modern Slavery Act.

Developed through extensive consultation with civil society, businesses and the community, the UK Modern Slavery Act was an opportunity to examine what was working and what wasn’t in the existing response. It was also an opportunity for the UK Government to innovate.

Responding to modern slavery requires an incredibly coordinated, complex response – drawing on the resources of civil society, but potentially also child protection, immigration, legal aid, law enforcement and labour regulators. It is very difficult for any single agency to stand back and properly assess the workings of the entire system.

The response under the UK Modern Slavery Act was to establish an independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner. His job is to step back and look at how the response to modern slavery is operating – not on paper – but in reality. Public authorities, such as law enforcement and border security, are obliged to co-operate with the Commissioner, who has the power to make recommendations to public authorities about the exercise of their functions.

The UK Modern Slavery Act also introduced a requirement that all commercial organisations, with turnover more than GBP 36M prepare a “slavery and human trafficking statement” for each financial year. This must address the steps the organisation has taken during the year to ensure modern slavery is not taking place in any of its own supply chains or those of its own business. It must be signed by the Board and/or a Company Director. A number of Australian companies are already impacted by this requirement – Wesfarmers, BHP – and have posted their modern slavery statements online. Now it is over to the court of public opinion to judge the quality of those statements.

Australian consumers, like British consumers, want to know that our Governments are doing everything in their power to stop these human rights abuses – both at home and abroad. Australian businesses want to operate in a level playing field.

Governments have a critical role to play here—creating systems of accountability for both business and themselves. Doing so will ensure companies can no longer turn a blind eye to slavery and the Government’s own response is transparent, resourced and effective.

We have done a lot – but there is still much more that must be done to identify and prevent this crime. On this Australia day, we urge the Australian Government to ask more of itself, to innovate, and to work hand in hand with business and civil society to end the scourge of modern slavery and make Australia a lucky country for all.

Co-authored with Heather Moore, National Policy and Advocacy Coordinator, Freedom Partnership, Salvation Army

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