Date posted: 27/11/2019 4 min read

Modern Slavery – Where are we now?

An update - November 2019

In brief

  • Australian organisations subject to the Commonwealth Modern Slavery Act 2018 should currently be mapping and assessing their supply chains
  • Ownership of the problem is critical as is honesty and transparency
  • Organisations have the opportunity to control the dialogue

Article by Dr Katherine Christ and Professor Roger Burritt
University of South Australia and Australian National University

Businesses and other entities in Australia and New Zealand are now at the sharp end of new legislation requiring disclosure about modern slavery practices in operations and supply chains.

In Australia disclosure provisions under the Commonwealth Modern Slavery Act 2018 (MSA Act) came into force for certain large Australian entities from 1 January 2019. 

Although smaller entities in Australia and all New Zealand entities face no specific modern slavery legislation they may be affected by being a supplier to a captured Australian business.

Entities in Australia with employees in NSW also have to be mindful of the provisions of the NSW Modern Slavery Act 2018. This Act has a lower threshold than the Commonwealth Act, at $50 million rather than $100 million turnover, imposes penalties of up to $1.1 million (10,000 units) for non-compliance with mandated reporting, and introduces an independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner. The NSW Act 2018 is arguably the most comprehensive anti- modern slavery legislation in the world which includes an exemption for entities captured by the Commonwealth Act 2018. But implementation is on hold, at least until mid-February 2020 as an Inquiry is underway into whether a single Commonwealth Act is sufficient in Australia. At present there is uncertainty about whether or to what extent, the NSW Act will be implemented. 

Ownership of the problem is also critical as is honesty and transparency

Regardless of what happens in NSW, captured organisations should currently be mapping and assessing their supply chains in order to seek out modern slavery if it exists and be in the preliminary stages of gathering information in readiness for the preparation of their first Modern Slavery Statement. Organisations must pay careful consideration to how they respond if modern slavery practices are discovered in their supply chain. Exposés of organisations associated with modern slavery often result in a backlash and calls to boycott products or companies so it is understandable that not many would want information to go public. 

One example was The Guardian exposé of the Thai fishing industry in 2015. This situation involved a third-party uncovering significant issues that some argued the business should have known and the practices that were uncovered impacted several multinational supply chains.

In contrast the new legislative requirements provide organisations with an opportunity to control the dialogue in this area and act as a conduit for education and change. With more than 20 million people trapped in modern slavery within corporate supply chains worldwide, evidence suggests most organisations will find examples of illegal activity if they look hard enough. 

But is this a bad thing? No. In fact, this is exactly what the legislation was designed to uncover by shining a light on practices that are traditionally hidden and opaque. The critical issue becomes how organisations deal with the situation and the practices developed to prevent recurrences.

Entities should not rely on the Modern Slavery Statement for communication and disclosure in this area. If something is uncovered, take a proactive position. 

A key thing for organisations to keep in mind when seeking to communicate with stakeholders is the victims. A victim-centred focus will put people back in the spotlight ensuring stakeholders understand the importance of remediation while not negatively impacting individuals who have been exploited trying to make a living. 

Ownership of the problem is also critical as is honesty and transparency. Acknowledge the learning process your organisation is on and focus on a clear cycle of plan, do, check and act. Ensure continuous improvement is key and focus on honesty to prevent a negative emphasis on a situation, which should be praised as a necessary step in the eradication of slavery once and for all.