Speeches

BILLS; Modern Slavery Bill 2018; Second Reading

September 12, 2018

Mr HAYES (FowlerChief Opposition Whip) (11:51): I also rise to make a contribution on the Modern Slavery Bill 2018. It's regrettable that, in a country like Australia, one would ordinarily think that we would need such a bill. But the reality is, whether we're talking about food processing or whether we're talking about apparel, we're an importing country and, largely, many things are just taken for granted. We are also a very accepting country. Regrettably, the number of people who we deal with and the number of enterprises that we deal with will put profit lines and will put cash, if you like, ahead of things such as human rights. Hence, it is appropriate that government brings forward the Modern Slavery Bill.

I should say from the outset that Labor will support the passage of this bill. We think it is a step in the right direction, albeit I will pick up on a number of the statements made by the member for Dunkley. I congratulate him on his contribution. I suspect he probably does have the view that if he had a free vote he would probably vote for the amendments in relation to penalties as well as having an independent commissioner or a statutory officer associated with the implementation of this bill. But it is a step in the right direction, though.

As a nation we do have ongoing responsibilities and commitments to protecting Australians against modern slavery, not only under our domestic laws but also in the context of our international framework. Modern slavery engages a number of Australia's international human rights obligations, as protected in a number of international human rights instruments—most notably the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. These are rights which are absolute rights of freedom from slavery and forced labour, from torture and from cruelty and other inhumane or degrading treatments or punishments.

The protection against slavery is one of those specific rights that the International Court of Justice has determined is a protection lent to global citizens under international law. It's not just what you apply to your own citizens. As the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, stated:

It is up to each and every one of us to raise our voice against crimes that deprive countless victims of their liberty, dignity and human rights. We have to work together to realize the equal rights promised to all by the United Nations Charter.

Despite the widely accepted protections against slavery on an international level, unfortunately, the statistics tell us a completely different story. Many, many people are today trapped in a situation of slavery or enforced labour around the world. Regrettably, the statistics actually say there are more people trapped in slavery than at any other time in human history. According to the International Centre for Human Rights, there are approximately 48.5 million people in slavery around the world. What is most alarming and, I suppose, would shock most people is that 4,300 people are estimated to be currently in slave like conditions here in Australia. That is just simply not good enough.

Slavery remains hidden from many of us yet can be the result of our actions in what seems to be the innocent purchasing of products for our food, as we heard from the member for Dunkley. Whether you're buying a shirt made in Bangladesh not knowing how it was made and where the cotton, the fabric, the dyes or the pigments were sourced, or whether you're buying the various foods that we eat, as a purchaser, you don't and would not be expected to go through and itemise all those things to satisfy yourself before making that purchase. I think the Redfern Legal Centre put it in perspective when they said:

Sometimes people are hidden behind closed doors, sometimes they are hidden in plain sight. The person who attaches the gutters to your roof, cares for your neighbour’s children, cleans your car, makes your clothes or serves your food could be a victim.

To put it in even more perspective, I would like to share just one example of modern slavery here in this country when we look at some of the foods that we can buy from our supermarket. Many, many cases have been recorded of fish caught by Thai fishing vessels operating in South-East Asian waters which have a documented history of physical abuse and the deprivation of the liberty of their workers. Inhumane working conditions are pretty widespread for their workers. Nevertheless, we continue to see the seafood on our shelves and we continue to buy it from Australian retailers. These are things we do need to address and this bill will address.

I would like to mention an organisation in my community that is doing a fantastic job in a very practical way helping people free themselves from forced labour and what we would think of as modern slavery. It's called Asian Women at Work, a remarkable organisation in the community that does a lot of good work on the ground. Lina Cabaero is the coordinator of the centre together with Bich Thuy Pham, a Vietnamese community worker, and they do a great job. They go out and talk to women, mainly women from Asian backgrounds, working in what can be only be described as backyard businesses. A lot of the women have little English, they don't know their rights under Australian law and work under terribly harsh conditions. These women actually go out and tell them they're rights, encourage them to speak up, and also show them where they are being exploited. That is happening in our communities at the moment in Western Sydney. Simply turning a blind eye to slavery should not be an option. I would suggest no Australian would want to go out and purchase goods knowing that they were tainted by slavery or businesses that had slavery in their supply chains.

Labor has been committed for some time to the Modern Slavery Act. Unlike the British version of it, on which this Modern Slavery Bill is modelled, we think it needs to go further. We think, as the amendment indicates, that there should be penalties attached to it—not simply a voluntary reporting code for most organisations, but penalties—and an antislavery commissioner appointed; a person who will have a statutory role to not only help investigate but also address the consequences of slavery in our community. Nevertheless, in terms of a modern slavery act, it is certainly welcomed by businesses, by the trade union movement and, I think, by any fair-minded citizen in our community.

While it's pleasing that the government has appreciated the need for a modern slavery bill, the bill, as it stands, is not adequate. We are deeply disappointed that the government has put this bill forward without penalties attached to it. It has chosen to go down the path of a business engagement unit, where business can be consulted and liaised with. We think the bill needs to have more teeth than that. It needs to have an independent statutorily appointed commissioner for antislavery.

With a lack of appropriate protections, we risk the real possibility of companies exploiting individuals further as they find loopholes to get around the requirements of this act. Let's face it: as I said from the start, many companies will chase lower costs at the expense of human rights. I don't think simply having a voluntary reporting method for those companies under the $100 million threshold catches the backyard sweatshops that we know operate in various communities. They're not going to go and voluntarily dob themselves in. We need something with a little bit more teeth in it if we're going to be serious about doing something to curb modern slavery in this country.

I take some comfort from the words of Keren Adams, the Director of Legal Advocacy for the Human Rights Law Centre:

Without financial penalties—and with no independent Commissioner to help enforce them—the new laws will lack the necessary teeth to make sure the worst offenders lift their game.

The Government must urgently address the weaknesses in this bill and send a strong message to brands that profiting from abuse will not be tolerated.

I think Keren Adams is right in that regard. The absence of penalties in this bill makes no sense at all. We cannot leave big business to effectively police themselves, and that's what we're being invited to do.

That's basically the situation in Britain itself. The experience in Great Britain is that, since the introduction of their Modern Slavery Bill, only about 30 per cent of those businesses caught up in the slavery chain have reported themselves, under voluntary reporting codes, to the government. If we're going to make a dent in this in a way where we want to play our part in eradicating modern slavery, I think we need to go further—and bear in mind that Australia currently holds a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council. We have a leading role to play in this regard. This is not just following Great Britain along the line and thinking, 'We'll just take steps to emulate what they're doing.' It is time that we actually showed leadership in this space, because we have that seat on the UN Human Rights Council.

We should be encouraging others to stand up for human rights within their share of influence. The government is moving in that direction, and I congratulate it for that. It is regrettable that it has not sought to put the necessary teeth in this legislation to make sure that it really bites at the issue and acts in a way that has penalties attached for those that wilfully disregard the notion of dealing with slavery in their supply chains. This legislation fails to appoint a statutory officer to look at enforcement and to address the actual issues on the ground of modern slavery within our community.

There's another group I'd particularly like to mention in the short time I have left: the Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking Humans, ACRATH. I know colleagues on both sides would have been visited by Sister Ng and Sister Diana Hayes recently, together with Genevieve Skruzny from ACRATH. It is a remarkable organisation. I have been meeting with Sister Margaret Ng for a number of years now, since I have a very large Vietnamese population in my community. Sister Ng is a Vietnamese Catholic nun of the Order of Saint Joseph. She has worked pretty extensively with prostitutes in our community. Here's this pint-sized Catholic nun who gets out there and supports women who, for various reasons—many of them are paying off family debts—find themselves engaged in the prostitution industry, the sex industry, of this country.

This organisation does a remarkable job working with people in need. They get out and work with them in a non-judgemental way and try to ensure that they support these young women in those circumstances. When Sister Ng was with us only recently, she said, 'Labor must seek amendments to the legislation. We do need penalties attached to this and we do need an independent commissioner.' ACRATH were specific about that, and I put their words on the record.

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