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A Chain Reaction: Modern Slavery Bill Under Consideration
On 17 September 2018, the House of Representatives passed the Modern Slavery Bill 2018 (Cth) (the “Commonwealth Bill”) which is currently before the Senate.
While there is no set definition of “modern slavery”, it is regarded as the full or partial servitude of people which can involve “human trafficking, slavery, forced labour, removal of organs and slavery-like practices”.1 For large businesses operating in Australia, a risk of modern slavery may arise within the supply chain of producing goods and services, as has occurred with respect to forced labour in the agriculture and construction industries. Another scenario that has given rise to concerns is where a business allows (or turns a blind eye to) workers paying off “debts” owed to others by working indefinitely without being paid a wage.
Since 2004, over 50 prosecutions have occurred in relation to modern slavery under the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth).2 However, the liability and accountability of large entities within Australia remains limited due to the lack of legislation requiring entities to conduct due diligence in preventing modern slavery throughout entities. The result is that instances of modern slavery within organisations’ supply chains, operations and structures may fail to be recognised or no preventative action is taken. With this in mind, in February 2017, the then-Commonwealth Attorney General, George Brandis, requested the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, to consider the introduction of modern slavery legislation in Australia.
Amongst other things, the Joint Standing Committee drew closely on the 2015 legislation introduced in the United Kingdom, as well as considering 225 public submissions and conducting 10 public hearings between May and October 2017. If it is enacted, the Commonwealth Bill will be the first piece of federal legislation to deal with modern slavery.
Nature of the obligations
The sole requirement of the Commonwealth Bill is the obligation of entities with a consolidated revenue of at least $100 million to publish modern slavery statements relating to the potential risks that exist in their operations and supply chains in relation to potential modern slavery.3
Unlike the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (NSW) (the “NSW Act”) introduced earlier this year, which imposes a penalty of up to 10,000 penalty units ($1.1 million) for failure to file a compliance statement,4 the Commonwealth Bill has no such sanctions. Instead, the Commonwealth Bill takes a “soft line” on enforcement. As Senator Nigel Scullion stated in the Second Reading Speech for the Bill, “[b]usinesses that fail to take action will be penalised by the market and consumers and severely tarnish their reputations”.5
How might this affect your business?
As compliance with the Commonwealth Bill will require an organisational level approach to assessing risk, human resource managers may be required to contribute to the process of producing modern slavery statements. Amongst other things, this will involve identifying the structure, operations and supply chains of the reporting entity, the risks of modern slavery throughout the entity’s operations and supply chain, assessing any risks and taking appropriate action.6
For NSW businesses, the requirement of a modern slavery statement as prescribed by the NSW Act is removed if the organisation is subject to a “law of the Commonwealth … that is prescribed as a corresponding law”.7 It is not yet clear whether the prospective Commonwealth legislation will be a “corresponding law” to the NSW Act, meaning that NSW businesses may be required to produce modern slavery statements on both a state and a federal level to satisfy both reporting regimes.
1 Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, “Hidden in Plain Sight: An inquiry into establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia” (2017) p 29
2 Attorney-General’s Department, “Modern Slavery in Supply Chains Reporting Requirement” Public Consultation Paper and Regulation Impact Statement (2017) p 6.
3 Modern Slavery Bill 2018 (Cth) s 5.
4 Modern Slavery Act 2018 (NSW) s 24.
5 Commonwealth, Parliamentary Debates, Senate, 18 September 2018, 17 (Nigel Scullion, Minister for Indigenous Affairs and Leader of The Nationals in the Senate).
6 Modern Slavery Bill 2018 (Cth) s 16.
7 Modern Slavery Act 2018 (NSW) s 24(9).
Other relevant resources
9 March 2018