Federal Parliament passes first anti-modern slavery legislation

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Background

Late last month the Federal Parliament passed the first federal anti-modern slavery legislation. Slavery offences are created by the Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth) and include possessing a slave, reducing a person to slavery, slave trading and engaging in commercial transactions involving a slave.[1]

Requirements of the legislation

Once a year certain businesses must give the Minister responsible for administering the Act a report (or “modern slavery statement”) describing what they are doing to address any risks that their business operations and supply chains may involve modern slavery practices.[2]

The reporting requirement applies to Australian businesses which earn a consolidated revenue of at least $100 million in a financial year, or entities which earned that amount and carried on business in Australia at any time during the financial year. The reporting requirement applies to the Commonwealth, and to corporate Commonwealth entities.[3]

A business can also volunteer to be a reporting entity for a particular financial year if it provides written notice to the Minister.[4] If a business volunteers to report, it is then required to do so. However it can revoke that notice, as long as the business does so before the reporting period begins.[5]

The report must describe the structure, operations and supply chain of the business, describe the risks of modern slavery practices within those business features, and describe the actions taken by the business to assess and address those risks. The report must also describe the process of consultation with any entities the business owns or controls in regards to those entities’ business features, risks and actions.[6]

This legislation is novel at the federal level in Australia, and it appears that the government is determined that the legislation will remain in force for the foreseeable future.

Although there is no legal avenue for enforcing compliance with the legislation, the Act requires the Minister to maintain a publicly available register of businesses’ slavery statements. Because the register is public, consumers are able to see how entities are dealing with risks of modern slavery practices within their business, and can decide whether to support that business or not. The power of public opinion has also been identified in the UK as a factor in enforcing compliance with that country’s legislation.

Key Takeaway

While there has been criticism that this Act is not effective because it lacks legal penalties, the fact that it has been passed is an important step in recognising that slavery remains an issue in modern times. It is an attempt to make entities work towards eliminating slavery practices within their business, and also an attempt to place responsibility on consumers for making ethical purchases.

[1] Criminal Code Act 1995 (Cth) s 270.3.

[2] Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth) ss 12, 13, 16.

[3] Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth) s 5.

[4] Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth) s 6.

[5] Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth) ss 5, 6, 13.

[6] Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth) s 16.

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