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Companies have role to play in eliminating modern slavery

Companies have role to play in eliminating modern slavery

By Karin Derkley

Corporate Social Responsibility  Human Rights 


Companies and their advisors need to remember that corporate and legal obligations under the Modern Slavery Act are aimed at preventing the exploitation of vulnerable people, Fiona McLeod SC said at a breakfast forum.

More than 800,000 people are trafficked across borders every year, with 40 million people living in slavery around the world, barrister and former LCA president Ms McLeod said at the Hall & Wilcox 2019 charity breakfast this week.

Modern slavery can include debt bondage – where a person is forced to work for nothing to pay off a debt, child slavery, forced marriage, domestic servitude and forced labour – where victims are made to work through violence and intimidation.

Ms McLeod told the story of her client "Ning" who had been trafficked as a 13-year old to a brothel in Australia, and who tragically died from HIV/AIDS after she was eventually sent back to her homeland.

Another case involved an Indian man on a 457 visa who was made to sleep in a storeroom in a restaurant in which he was forced to work seven days a week, 12 hours a day for less than $1 an hour.

The horror of the exploitation to which people like Ning are subjected can be overwhelming, she acknowledged.

"The question is, how can you change this?"

In many cases, instances of exploitation were brought to light by people in the community who reported them to the police, who then referred them on to the Australian Federal Police which has the jurisdiction over human trafficking and modern slavery.

But companies and their advisors could also play a role in eliminating such exploitation by ensuring there were no instances of modern slavery in their supply chains.

“Firms and businesses can help drive cultural change by looking at their corporate footprint,” she said.

The Modern Slavery Act requires companies with a revenue of more than $100 million to report on slavery in their supply chains.

Firms need to devote adequate resources to ensure it is done correctly, she said. For some businesses, reporting has been conducted as little more than a press release that was essentially whitewashing.

“You need a whole of business team that includes major projects, sustainability, HR, lawyers, corporate, all being able to provide the board with a substantial report about what is happening down below in terms of suppliers and internal operations.”

She also recommended that companies below that threshold take advantage of the opportunity to do a voluntary audit of their supply chain.

"You can persuade your board that you should be looking at your footprint even if you are below the line of the reporting threshold, as a way of managing your reputational risk.”

Prosecuting those who are identified as having exploited others in modern slavery is a difficult and painstaking process, Ms McLeod acknowledged, and one made more difficult by overlapping federal and state laws and a lack of understanding by police as to the pressures victims are under.

"The systems around support of victims of modern slavery are inadequate at the moment. Victims fear they or their family will be punished, and do not have trust that someone in uniform might be on your side."

At present the protection visa program depends on victims’ willingness to give evidence the Australian Federal Police think is useful, Ms McLeod said. "Some have been pushed off the program because they are no longer considered by police to be useful."

Ms McLeod said the organisation is pressing for a change to that discretion "so that their willingness to participate is all that is required rather than an assessment that it is useful to the prosecution."

"It’s an ongoing process of AFP and specialist units continuing to be educated about pressure points as to why people don’t come forward."

Ms McLeod has also been working to establish a crime compensation scheme for victims of trafficking here in Australia. At present victims of trafficking fall between the cracks of state law, which is not designed to help victims of federal offences.

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