These days, when we hear the word ‘slavery’ our thoughts revert to historical times where slavery was common and slaves were distinct in their appearances and lack of wealth and resources. Thus, it might come as a surprise to learn that slavery is prevalent and strong in modern societies, including Australia, with approximately 45 million people affected across the world, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index. Modern slavery can include forced labour, human trafficking, child exploitation and servitude. While there are anti-slavery laws in place, they are often out-dated and difficult to enforce. Many countries are now considering the implementation of a Modern Slavery Act to combat these human rights issues.
The UK have been one of the countries at the frontier of implementing modern slavery legislation. They introduced a bill in October 2013 with legislation being passed in March 2015. The UK Act has undergone several amendments since its introduction, one of which was the amendment to include a ‘supply chain clause’ which requires corporate businesses to publicise their efforts in stopping suppliers from using slave labour via a published annual statement. While there are currently no legal obligations or penalties to comply with these statements, it is expected that most corporate companies would endeavour to do so in order to keep their reputation intact.
Within Australia, approximately 4,500 people are experiencing some form of slavery with the most common cases involving the abuse and underpayment of foreign workers. Too often, foreign workers have been forced to labour in poor conditions on little or no pay with their travel documents taken away and threats of violence. Despite the fact that slavery provisions exist in the Commonwealth criminal code, Australia has seen only seven convictions arise between 2011 and 2016 out of 604 slavery-related investigations or referrals. It is believed that the introduction of a Modern Slavery Act could vastly improve this disparity and encourage more victims to come forward, as seen in the UK where there has been an increase of 63 percent in the number of victims coming forward since 2015. So far, no bill has yet been introduced to parliament however a parliamentary inquiry has been launched and it is likely that Australia’s stance will largely follow that of the UK’s.
One concern of the Modern Slavery Act is the turnover threshold that determines whether or not a business would need to publicise a statement. In the UK, this threshold is currently at the equivalent of AUD $58 million per annum. In August however, Justice Minister Michael Keenan announced that in Australia, the threshold should be AUD $100 million, decreasing the number of businesses who would be obliged under the Act. This was met with unsurprising criticism however all businesses will of course, still be bound by the criminal code of Australia.
Prostitution remains a key area of debate regarding slavery as while there are known cases of trafficking sex workers, there is varied support for criminalising prostitution. In Australia, cases of trafficking humans for prostitution and forced marriage occurs more commonly than people think with more than 60 cases being investigated in 2013-2014. There are fears however, following the trend of criminalising acts or substances, that criminalising prostitution will not stop it from occurring, and may further drive it underground which would be more detrimental. In 2014, the UK attempted to amend the Modern Slavery Bill however this was unsuccessful due to similar concerns.
Slavery in the modern world is not as obvious as it was in historical times and thus, more difficult to pinpoint and address. Australia has a dark history of slavery regarding Indigenous Australians and there are unfortunately still some instances of Indigenous slavery today. Slavery in Australia however, has unfortunately broadened considerably and these inhumane issues must be addressed. They may not be completely solved by the introduction of an act, however, evidence shows that it can vastly improve people’s awareness and willingness to act, a step forward in the right direction.
If you or someone you know has been a victim of slavery in Australia, or you have any questions in relation to modern slavery, please feel free to contact us on (02) 8917 8700.