Disappointment over Australia's 'toothless' anti-slavery law

KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Australia on Thursday became the latest country to tackle the scourge of modern slavery with proposed new legislation that campaigners instantly dismissed as toothless.

A global drive to end slavery by 2030 has seen a rash of new laws, the release of landmark data and a U.N. call for action, with Britain’s 2015 anti-slavery act considered the benchmark.

Australia emulated that act with its own Modern Slavery Bill, saying it plans to crack down on forced labor by forcing more than 3,000 businesses to report what they are doing to avoid slavery in their supply chains.

Australia is home to some 4,000 victims of modern slavery, according to estimates by the government and rights groups, and it has come under pressure to stamp out a crime that affects about 40 million people globally.

Most victims worldwide are female, caught in forced labor and forced marriages, and the illegal trade is now worth an estimated $150 billion a year to the enslavers and traffickers.


While backing the idea of a new law, campaigners questioned the absence of an independent anti-slavery commissioner and the lack of penalties for companies that fail to report.

“A mandatory reporting scheme is not really mandatory if there are no consequences for companies that fail to comply,” Keren Adams from Australia’s Human Rights Law Center said.

“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 non-profit’s legal advocacy director added.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions, which represents 2 million workers and their families, also criticized the bill for not incorporating enforcement measures.

“This sends the message that they can get away with not taking this issue seriously,” its secretary Sally McManus said in a statement.

The Law Council of Australia labeled the bill as “counter-productive” for leaving out punishments, and said it was disappointed over the lack of support it offered survivors.

“Victims of modern slavery are often vulnerable,” said Morry Bailes, president of the council that represents 65,000 lawyers.

“They tend to be found in domestic work, hospitality, agriculture, construction and sadly include a number of women trafficked from Asia for sex work,” he added in a statement.

In tabling the bill, assistant minister Alex Hawke said it was a milestone in Australia’s fight against a “heinous crime”.

The government also committed to reporting possible slavery risks in its own procurement processes.

From France to Hong Kong to the Netherlands, governments have mulled legislative action, while big brands have come under pressure to check their complex supply chains are slave-free.