Modern Slavery News

The Practical Application of Australia’s Modern Slavery Laws

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[Brayden Sharp]

Campaigners should be looking for ways to improve the Act to become not only a moral compass, but a strong weapon

With Australia’s Modern Slavery Act being passed in November 2018, large organisations have had to start paying closer attention to how they conduct their business.

Fair Supply, Australia’s first law firm exclusively dedicated to partnering businesses so they may abide my the new Modern Slavery Act, state that the new laws are acting as a moral compass for big businesses. They state that:

the act should be seen as useful, as it gave businesses the tools to make good decisions and combat the growing international problem of modern slavery in supply chains.

Indeed, the Modern Slavery Act now makes it mandatory for large organisations with a revenue of over $100 million to become more transparent and disclose to the public where they source their materials from, and whether any stage of their supply chain is known for being linked to any form of modern slavery.

While this is a strong step, the loophole in the legislation is that those companies that are required to make such reports do not yet receive a penalty for failing to report, or failing to abide by the Modern Slavery Act. While Labor did try to impose penalties as soon as the Act was passed, the Coalition managed to get the bill through with no penalties for at least the first three years of the Act being in force.

What this means is that while the law requires reporting and adherence, the penalty does not exist for those that do not.

This has left a bad taste in the mouth of many campaigners (us included), and it must be said that while the intent behind the Act is strong, the practical implication is weak.

One part of why laws work is because of the consequence of breaching them. People, for the most part, won’t speed because of the fear of a fine. Nor will they steal, because they may end up with a Corrections’ order or jail time. If the penalty isn’t included, it takes away a big part of the efficacy of our legislation.

Yet, laws also work for another reason. In its simplest form, laws work because people acknowledge that breaking the law is wrong. For the most point, the laws in our society point people in the direction to do what is right, and, as Fair Supply said, these laws should act as a moral compass for large organisations to ensure they are free of modern slavery at all levels.

Now, we’re well aware that large organisations don’t have a great history of doing what is right just because it is the right thing to do – especially when it comes to modern slavery (see Nike in the 1990s) – and we concede that without the penalties argued for by Labor this Act is somewhat toothless. However, it is the beginning of what we can hope is long history of Australian law and modern slavery. The Act is likely to evolve and be amended to have harsh penalties after the three-year buffer, and instead of marking it as a failure, campaigners should be looking for ways to improve the Act to become not only a moral compass, but a strong weapon for punishing companies that engage in the practice of modern slavery.

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