HON MATTHEW SWINBOURN (East Metropolitan) [11.30 am] — without notice: I move —
That this house notes the existence of modern slavery in Western Australia, the pernicious form that it takes in practices like domestic servitude and forced labour and the need for both the state and federal governments to stamp it out where it occurs and to remain vigilant to ensure it does not ever become prevalent.
Comments and speeches from various members
HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [11.54 am]: I rise on behalf of the Greens to also give my support to this important and welcome motion. I have noticed that the member who has moved this motion consistently brings quality issues to this chamber for discussion, and this motion is no exception. I thank the previous two speakers for their important contributions.
It has already been said that modern slavery includes a range of exploitative practices. This is not normally well understood within an Australian context, but we are talking about human trafficking, slavery, servitude, forced labour, debt bondage and also forced marriage. These things are happening in this country. The International Labour Organization estimates that more than 40 million people are subjected to modern slavery conditions worldwide, which has already been mentioned. The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade’s 2017 inquiry into this issue estimated that at the time, 4 300 people were victims of some form of modern slavery within Australia. This again included victims of human trafficking, slavery, debt bondage, forced labour and other slavery-like practices—not something that the average Australian would expect to happen in our country. Very few of these people are detected. Although more research in this area is needed, the Australian Institute of Criminology has estimated that for every detected victim of modern slavery, another four victims go undetected. There is every reason to suspect that this number might be rising with a 35 per cent annual rise last year in the number of suspected slavery victims in the United Kingdom—a country very similar to Australia. Addressing modern slavery in Australia involves not only the issue of people living in these conditions, but also the existence of modern slavery in supply chains. Australia is very much complicit in that regardless of whether that conduct occurs in a state, in the country or internationally.
It has already been said that the commonwealth Modern Slavery Act 2018 came into force on 1 January this year. That legislation requires certain large businesses and other entities operating in Australia to publicly report the steps they take to keep their supply chains free from the worst forms of modern-day slavery. It is particularly aimed at ending child and forced labour as well as human trafficking. The first annual statements required under the law will be due mid–next year and will be made publicly available. However, I want to express my concern and disappointment that, unfortunately, there will be no penalty if companies are noncompliant with these provisions. I note that the UK, in 2015, and France have implemented similar laws, and other jurisdictions are also contemplating this. We are part of an international trend to address this matter. Although these laws are an important step in the right direction, they unfortunately lack teeth. I acknowledge the criticism from human rights advocates who say that the laws do not go far enough because there are simply no consequences for the companies that do not comply. I compare that with the disturbing eagerness with which the federal government is currently trying to clamp down on the capacity of unions to perform their job, noting that unions are usually at the forefront of drawing attention to a lot of modern slavery provisions. I wish that just as much attention would be paid to the accountability of those corporations that engage in modern slavery.
In June 2018, the New South Wales government, following its own inquiry, also decided to do something about this and passed a modern slavery law—although I note that its commencement has been delayed because of a range of complexities. The legislation has now been referred to the New South Wales Standing Committee on Social Issues for review. That proposed law created an independent Anti-slavery Commissioner to monitor what is happening. A really important element is that it will also provide for an improvement in services to victims, including improved victim identification, which is really important. It will also establish a modern slavery hotline, as well as initiatives to improve offender prosecution. It promotes broader action against modern slavery and introduces penalties for those companies failing to comply with requirements. As has already been mentioned, it also has a lower threshold than the commonwealth law for businesses that are required to report, and lowers the turnover threshold from $100 million to $50 million.
In comparison, Western Australia has not done as much as it could have in this area. Of course, I welcome the Western Australian inquiry into wage theft, because that is an associated area. However, Western Australia could and, I think, should be doing much more to raise and address the issue of modern slavery. Frankly, modern slavery is heinous and affects incredibly vulnerable workers, as the personal stories in Hon Samantha Rowe’s contribution highlighted. This is an important human and workers’ rights issue and we should be doing everything we can to eradicate it. If the commonwealth scheme lacks teeth and is ineffective—there is a risk that that is the case—we need to consider introducing some sort of state scheme similar to the one that New South Wales has contemplated. It is important to not only hold large companies accountable, but also provide easily accessible avenues for victims. They need access to justice and broader support services. We also all have an individual responsibility. An article in The Guardian online published last year put it well, and I quote —
... we all need to recognise the signs. Where workers are putting in excessive hours, where they have no language to communicate with customers or where employers seem quick to speak for them, where they live in houses of multiple occupancy, we should be alert to the possibility of modern slavery.
It is a sad and very distressing sign of the times that this is very much an issue for us in Australia and Western Australia. It is important that we keep on top of it, and I thank the member for bringing this important issue to the chamber’s attention.
Comments and speeches from various members
Motion lapsed, pursuant to standing orders.