It is an honour to be here today, amongst so many of the people who have fought for years to make the Modern Slavery Act a reality. I’d particularly like to acknowledge the tireless work of STOP THE TRAFFIK, both in putting together this important forum and in making the case for action against modern slavery over the last decade. Their advocacy has been absolutely instrumental to the progress that has been made so far, and I have no doubt that they will continue to lead the fight against modern slavery until it is eliminated from every Australian workplace, industry and supply chain.

It is deeply heartening to me to see so many people here today making a commitment to the elimination of slavery.

For me, this issue is a deeply personal one. My great-grandfather, Laxman Singh, suffered in slavery-like conditions as an indentured labourer in Fiji. He left India in 1902, chasing dreams of economic prosperity, and signed a “girmit”, or agreement, to work on the British Empire’s sugarcane plantations in Fiji.

Laxman and his fellow “girmityas” were treated appallingly. They were overworked and underpaid, working in inhumane conditions made worse by substandard or non-existent medical care. This harsh system of indenture trapped over millions of Indians in slavery-like conditions across the colonies.

The mortality rate for girmityas was very high. My great-grandfather survived. Many others did not.

Today, we tend to think of slavery as a thing of the past, a problem confined to our great-grandparents’ generation. But the confronting reality is that more people are living in slavery or slavery-like conditions now than at any other time in human history.

An estimated 45.8 million people are victims of modern slavery across the world, today.

And two thirds of those people are in the Asia-Pacific region. They work in the supply chains that provide Australians with the goods and services we use every day. They make our clothes. They harvest our food. They build our technology.

Some of those people are even closer to home. Here in Australia, an estimated 4300 people are currently trapped in slavery or slavery-like conditions.

Slavery is one of the worst imaginable abuses of humanity, perpetrated by humanity. It erodes individuals’ mental and physical wellbeing, taking away their autonomy, their potential and their dignity. It strips its victims of the ability to make meaningful choices about their own lives and futures. Preventing another person from exercising this freedom – freedom to which every individual should be entitled – is one of the gravest violations of human rights imaginable.

And we are all worse off in a society where our fellow human beings are subjected to the degradation and dehumanisation inherent in enslavement. In the famous words of JFK, “when one … is enslaved, all are not free.”

Australian people know this. Across the country, condemnation of slavery transcends political divisions. Australians from all walks of life, working in every field, of every political persuasion, find the notion of slavery abhorrent. It conjures images of subjugation, pain and fear.

Indeed, fighting against the enslavement of our fellow human beings goes to the very heart of what makes so many of us proud to be Australian. On our best days, we are the nation of a fair go; we believe that every person, regardless of background or circumstance, is entitled equally to the chance to build a good life for themselves and their families. We value the freedom and dignity that allow people to take up opportunities, to meet their potential, to shape their own futures. We understand that a society governed by laws which require us to treat each other fairly, and which recognise the fundamental equality of all people, is the best place for all of us to live and to work.

No Australian wants to buy products made by someone trapped by slavery, working for less than a living wage, with no hope and no prospects of escape.

No Australian wants the food they eat or the garments they wear to come at the cost of another human being’s capacity to feed and clothe themselves or their family.

But for years, Australia has been blind to the human suffering caused by slavery throughout our region and here at home.

The Modern Slavery Act represents a long-overdue change to this situation. It is a statement of our values as a nation, a message to the international community that Australians are committed to a world without modern slavery

I’m proud to be part of the party that has fought for those values, and led the debate on a Modern Slavery Act, from the very beginning.

Back in 2016, as a member of the Parliamentary Committee on Law Enforcement, I initiated an inquiry into human trafficking and slavery, which went on to make a number of key recommendations about the prevention of slavery and provision of support to victims. In 2017, the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade took up the task the Law Enforcement Committee had begun, initiating its own inquiry into the establishment of a Modern Slavery Act in Australia.

As a member of the committee, I attended hearings throughout the country, listening to the stories of people whose lives had been touched by modern slavery. From victims themselves, to the organisations and individuals who support and advocate for them, the Australian community’s resounding message was that things needed to change.

The committee found that there are serious gaps in the way victims are identified and supported, and in the ways our criminal justice agencies cooperate to bring perpetrators to justice. Particularly concerning were the reports by stakeholders of serious misconduct in overseas residential institutions and within Australia, particularly in the horticulture and labour hire companies.

In Mildura, for example, the committee heard from Mr Turaga of Fiji. He had been promised the opportunity to work in Australia – earning a fair living, with the opportunity to study and the ability to send money back home to his family. Instead, he had his passport taken upon arrival. He was told he had to pay back a debt associated with the cost of his travel to Australia. He was forced to work over 12 hours a day, and his wages were not repatriated to his family.

Further investigations revealed that this kind of exploitation was not isolated. The committee heard that passport seizures, wage theft and violations of even the most basic workplace health and safety laws had become a business model for labour hire companies. 

As a result, the Foreign Affairs Committee recommended a series of changes to the way Australia’s victim support programs operate, including the introduction of a national compensation scheme; improvements to the way victims are supported in the visa process; the delinking of this support from criminal prosecutions; and the introduction of a national labour hire licensing scheme. The committee also recommended the establishment of an Independent Antislavery Commissioner, and the introduction of global supply chain reporting requirements and penalties for their breach, and it made a series of recommendations to improve coordination and training for Australia’s law enforcement and criminal justice agencies.

Labor supported the majority of these recommendations. In fact, many of them were in lock step with Labor’s policy to introduce an Australian Modern Slavery Act, first announced by the Leader of the Opposition and the Shadow Justice Minister, Clare O’Neil, in June 2017.

I was very pleased that the Government also chose to listen to the voices of victims and their advocates, and acted on the committee’s recommendations to implement a Modern Slavery Act. The Act, now law, goes a long way to ensuring that no Australian company is implicit, directly or indirectly, in modern slavery.

Still, there is more that can and should be done.

The Act requires businesses with an annual consolidated revenue of at least $100 million to report on risks of modern slavery in their supply chains, and the actions they have taken to reduce those risks. Reporting is important, and it adds a new level of accountability to Australian markets and supply chains. But without any penalty provisions, the Act ultimately gives no guarantee that businesses will take steps to eliminate slavery from the products they make and the services they provide. I acknowledge that many companies are making genuine, commendable efforts to eliminate slavery from their supply chains. But the unfortunate reality is that many more are not, and that these companies will continue to prioritise profits over people until they are faced with penalties for doing so.

Leaving business to regulate itself simply doesn’t work. We saw this in the Banking Royal Commission, and we’ve seen it in the United Kingdom, where a Modern Slavery Act without penalties for non-compliance has left the percentage of businesses that are reporting hovering at around 30 per cent of those which supposedly have an obligation to do so.

We can do better than this. A Labor government will ensure that the Modern Slavery Act contains civil penalty provisions, providing businesses with support and incentives to meet their reporting requirements and improve working conditions throughout their supply chains. The list of companies required to report will be publicly available, and a central repository of statements will be established.

Labor will also establish an Independent Antislavery Commissioner, a step that has long been called for by key stakeholders including ACRATH, Anti-Slavery Australia, and the ACTU. The Independent Commissioner will monitor and scrutinise the government’s efforts to tackle modern slavery, and help address the gaps in enforcement and victim support, working with victims of slavery to receive inquiries and complaints. They will assist businesses in building best practice to protect their supply chains from the taint of slavery; work with civil society to detect and prevent slavery in Australia; and lead our country’s global outreach in the fight against slavery, cooperating with other countries and international organisations to ensure that this practice can be eliminated worldwide.

We have made a great deal of progress towards the elimination of slavery and the advancement of human rights since my great-grandfather laboured in indentured servitude over a century ago. Australians today want to live in a country – in a world – where the full scope of human potential is open to every person; where every individual is treated with dignity, and afforded fundamental human rights; and where we can freely choose the products we want to buy without stripping another human being of their own freedom of choice.

The Modern Slavery Act is an important step towards making this world a reality. I have no doubt that it will drive corporate change in Australia and globally, helping Australian businesses and consumers to make responsible, ethical decisions – and I commend the efforts of all those who have advocated for its implementation, and fought tirelessly for the rights and voices of victims to be recognised.

But the process of eliminating modern slavery is far from over. It is incumbent upon all of us to ensure that no person in Australia, or anywhere, suffers the indignity and inhumanity of enslavement. I hope that everyone here will take up that task, and that together we can end slavery for good.