In the last minutes of the last hour of the last sitting day of last year in Federal Parliament, a small pre-Christmas miracle occurred. MPs put aside their tribal antagonisms and point-scoring to pass legislation everyone could feel good about. Its name is The Modern Slavery Bill (2018) and it purports to represent Australia’s commitment to ending labour exploitation in our own backyard, and overseas.

According to the legislation, Australian companies will lead the way by auditing their own supply chains to identify instances of slave labour and work to get rid of them. Locally that should mean preventing the exploitation of around 15,000 workers, according to the Global Slavery Index, nearly all them migrant labour, a quarter of whom are farm workers.

Anti-slavery advocate Heather Moore travelled from Melbourne to witness the moment. “I was elated,” she said. “It got through in the last four minutes of the year before they adjourned. Literally. And then BOOM,” she laughs, “we had a Modern Slavery Act!”. Moore recalls the euphoria of seeing a result after years spent lobbying, convincing and cajoling. She knew the legislation wasn’t perfect but it was a start. “To get a law that imposes new regulatory burden on big business under this government was no small feat,” she says.

Eight months on, INQ’s inquiries show the Modern Slavery Act has become far removed from what its supporters worked for and which a cross-party parliamentary inquiry had pushed for. Grievance number one is who’s in charge. The laws have ended up being run out of the Department of Home Affairs, under Peter Dutton, rather than by an independent anti-slavery commissioner with powers to speak publicly and oversee the laws.

Then there’s the lack of any power to penalise the 3000 Australian companies — those with turnover above $100 million — covered by the act. Instead companies will lodge returns which can be viewed online.

Next comes budget. According to the government’s budget papers, Home Affairs will have $3.6 million to run a Modern Slavery unit over four years — just $900,000 per year — notionally employing five public servants to publicise the new laws and ensure the likes of Coles and Woolworths complete and lodge their annual returns on time. To put this expenditure into context, the Morrison government spent more than $16 million before the last election advertising its tax cuts.

Six months after the legislation came into force, the department won’t answer INQ’s questions on how many staff have yet been employed or how senior they are.

The political unity which once existed is also gone. The ALP says the legislation is toothless because companies will be regulating themselves. The Greens agree. Expecting an ALP government after the May polls, both parties planned to toughen the Coalition’s laws.

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The modern slavery laws have also cleaved the Coaltion into conservative and moderate camps. A core of Liberal MPs, like Chris Crewther, who led a parliamentary committee of inquiry into modern slavery, and former assistant Home Affairs Minister Senator Linda Reynolds, had pushed for the strongest laws possible only to see them watered down in cabinet before they were presented to the parliament.

So what led to such great hopes being buried? According to the anti-slavery campaigners, the laws need an independent commissioner, akin to a human rights commissioner, to provide independent oversight, monitor implementation and hold business and governments accountable.

“The reason why that is particularly important for a crime like modern slavery is that it touches a number of functions. There’s NGO involvement, there’s all of the blue shirt policing across the states and the federal police and immigration so when you’re working across a multi-function response having a co-ordinated independent body makes that better,” argues Jenn Morris, CEO of Walk Free, an anti-slavery organisation set up by mining billionaire Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest. Morris points to an “appallingly low” prosecution rate of modern slavery as proof a stepped-up effort is needed. Only 150 referrals were made to the federal police in 2016-17 out of an estimated 15,000 people classed as being in slavery in Australia.

Most governments — and this one is no different — don’t like independent statutory office roles because they are there to hold the government to account on what the legislation is intended to do. So I think if there was a statutory office role they would be more free to hold the government to account. Having an independent officer role always adds weight to that, I think.”

The move to strip out the independent commissioner came during the Turnbull government, in the first half of 2018, soon after Dutton was appointed as minister for the newly-created Department of Home Affairs. The expanded super-department includes the Australian Border Force (ABF) and the Australian Federal Police (AFP), the very agencies whose performance might have been monitored by an independent commissioner.

INQ has spoken to sources who point to the role of “conservatives” in the Coalition who “don’t like to have to answer to commissioners.” In so doing, the “conservatives” rode roughshod over a parliamentary inquiry which heard from business, farmers and NGOs and recommended both an independent commissioner and penalties for businesses that failed to comply. 18 of Australia’s faith leaders, led by the Salvation Army, had also made the case for “world’s best practice” legislation in meetings with prime minister Turnbull — a chain of events that has raised the question of whether anti-slavery powers were watered down to appease Dutton, who now controls close to every agency which touches worker exploitation in Australia.

As well as enforcing the modern slavery laws, Dutton’s department includes the two frontline agencies dealing with illegal workers, the AFP and the ABF. The Department of Home Affairs decides on visa applications from people seeking to stay and work in Australia and oversees Taskforce Cadena — a joint operation involving the Taxation Office and the Fair Work Ombudsman — which conducts occasional raids to net illegal labour contractors at farms. All of which means that Dutton, as well as being Australia’s security czar, presides over a burgeoning pool of cheap and largely unregulated labour.

The further weakening of the act through the removal of penalties was in line with the demands of powerful business lobby groups, the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The Business Council argued that laws that are “punitive” or had “an excessive focus on compliance” would be counterproductive, driving what it called a “tick and flick” approach to reporting. Australia’s two big supermarket giants, Coles and Woolworths, also argued against penalties, claiming they were already working with their fruit and vegetable suppliers to prevent exploitation.

The raw figures tell a sobering story about the sheer scale of Australia’s shadow workforce:

  • 878,912 temporary visa holders with work rights in Australia as of 2018, according to Professor Allan Fels’ Migrant Worker Taskforce.
  • 194,875 people on bridging visas who may or may not have work rights, as of 2018, according to Department of Home Affairs statistics.
  • 64,600 unlawful non-citizens in Australia, as of 2016, according to Department of immigration and Border Protection figures supplied to a senate inquiry (70% of these entered Australia on a visitor visa without work rights).

Here’s the question, says Moore who ran the modern slavery campaign for the Salvation Army and a coalition of anti-slavery interests:

“Why is there such a high amount of unlawful work and why is there so much unlawful labour in the workforce? You can’t lay over this legislative framework (such as the modern slavery law) and expect that it will clean up the industry. We need to be honest and acknowledge that there are limits.”

Moore describes an “incoherence” between immigration policy and anti-slavery policy in countries like Australia, the UK and the USA. The countries are criminalising slavery yet, Moore says, they are not addressing “how immigration policy in their own backyard has actually fuelled vulnerability to trafficking.”

The disconnect has broader consequences on our labour market, she contends: “Frankly, it sustains this pervasive underclass on a global scale.”

Peter Fray

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