Slavery isn’t a thing of the past. 

Its form has changed and continues today. This is known as modern slavery. It is any type of forced labour undertaken under duress for little to no wages.

By definition, slavery is the practice where humans are owned by other humans as property, with the enslaved person typically working without remuneration and against their own will. Historically speaking, slavery has existed in many civilisations as a legal institution, but today it is outlawed in all recognised countries.

Australia itself has a tragic history of slavery—from the kidnapping of South Sea Islanders to work on the sugar cane fields and the shipping industry to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people forced to work as domestic workers and farm labourers. 

Modern slavery is not limited to human trafficking, and includes debt bondage, wage exploitation and forced labour. According to the Global Slavery Index, in 2016, there were approximately 15,000 people working under conditions considered to be modern slavery within Australia. 

With the creation of new legislation in Australia, the government is cracking down on businesses who might be engaging in modern slavery. 

As a business owner, it’s important to know your obligations under these new laws to ensure that you or anyone in your supply line is not engaging in modern slavery practices. 

What Are The Forms Of Modern Slavery?

Modern Slavery can take different forms. They include any of the following:

  • Forced labour 
  • Debt bondage
  • Human trafficking 
  • Descent based slavery 
  • Child slavery
  • Servitude
  • Forced and early marriage 
  • Deceptive recruiting for labour or services

If you’re an employer, it’s important to consider whether your business practices can be considered modern slavery. The term “modern slavery” is used to cover a wide range of exploitative practices. It generally refers to a situation where a person can’t refuse work because of an abuse of power.

Some recent examples include vulnerable migrants being promised a better life in Australia, only to have their passport taken by their employer, being forced to work long hours without pay and being threatened to be sent to their home country if they do not comply.

How Can Australian Businesses Be Affected by Modern Slavery?

Modern Slavery undermines responsible business practices and warps international markets. Modern slavery, even if in your supply chain, can cause ireparable reputational harm to your business. 

A proactive approach to confronting modern slavery in your supply chains and operations is essential to respect a person’s human right to be free from slavery. 

What’s more, according to the Commonwealth’s ‘Guidance for Reporting Entities’, taking steps to address modern slavery provide many benefits to your entity—such as enhancing the conditions and processes of your supply chains, boosting consumer/investor confidence and therefore financing, and improving business opportunities and relationships with staff and your community.  

What Is The Modern Slavery Reporting Requirement In Australia?

If you are an Australian entity—or an entity that carries out business in Australia—and have an annual consolidated revenue of $100 million or more, you must submit a ‘modern slavery statement’. 

However, as many small and medium sized enterprises can also be at risk of modern slavery, all businesses have the potential to be affected.This means modern slavery laws are something all business owners should be aware of. Reporting is a useful way to make supply chains more transparent in exposing modern slavery.

In fact, it’s a UN Guiding Principle that all businesses have the responsibility to try to prevent or remedy modern slavery in both their supply chains and operations.

It is estimated that the modern slavery statement reporting will affect only 3000 businesses in Australia—a far cry from the true amount of businesses involved in modern slavery.

How Has COVID-19 Affected Modern Slavery?

COVID-19 is set to magnify pre existing power imbalances through creating unstable labour markets, a lack of job security, and an inability for migrant workers to return to their home country. Modern slavery is very much a global problem, and combating modern slavery means cooperation with other countries; something that has been interrupted due to COVID-19. 

Due to COVID-19, deadlines to submit the Modern Slavery Reporting Requirement have been extended, with the exact date depending on your entity’s accounting period. How you report has changed, too. This is due to a number of factors, like changes in supply lines and shifting priorities, loss of contact with some suppliers, and disruption from understaffing. 

To counteract the effects of COVID-19 on modern slavery, the Australian Border Force has some helpful guidance, which includes maintaining relationships with suppliers and encouraging a dialogue with them about how they are protecting their staff, supporting the return of foreign staff, providing equipment to keep staff safe, and maintaining contact with other peak bodies to receive updates on best practice.  

What Steps Can You Take?

The obvious answer to prevent slavery is to ensure you do not exploit your staff, but the more difficult steps are to address modern slavery in your entity’s supply chains. As a business owner in Australia, no matter what size your business is, you have more sway than you think. Believe it or not, your influence could affect entities in other countries. 

Even if your business makes a consolidated revenue of less than $100 million, you can still make a voluntary report. Voluntary reporting is a great way to take the initiative on fighting modern slavery, and can set your brand apart as showing strong ethics and leadership.

If you need more help on your reporting requirements, or information on how you can report, feel free to contact our expert employment lawyers at Sprintlaw.

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