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Observations from the 2023 Modern Slavery Conference

Conflict in business concept with broken chain.

Last month, I attended the Federal Government’s Modern Slavery Conference, themed ‘Taking Action Together’, and held in partnership between the Attorney-General’s Department (AGD) and the Australian Institute of Criminology.

Dedicating three days to the conference along with the significant process to review and strengthen Australia’s modern slavery legislative regime shows the Federal Government is taking the issue of modern slavery with the utmost seriousness.

In the past 12 months, AGD has run a public consultation, followed by Professor John McMillan’s independent report including 30 recommendations to strengthen the operation of the current Act and now this high-profile conference, all hopefully leading to an updated legislative regime passed and in place by Christmas 2023.

Day one of the conference focused on context-setting and exploring the victims and human cost of modern slavery. It was headlined by Assistant Minister for Social Services and Assistant Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence, the Hon Justine Elliot MP, who elaborated on the $24.3 million for a ‘Support for Trafficked People Program’ put aside in the federal budget over the next four years through as part of a ‘Tackling Modern Slavery’ package.

‘The ‘Support for Trafficked People Program’ seeks to address the immediate needs of survivors, whilst supporting them to rebuild their lives and achieve the best possible outcomes in terms of health and mental health, social connection, education and employment.

The funding boost delivered in our May Budget ensures the program can continue to provide its vital services but will also enable us to strengthen the supports available.’

The highlight of day one though was a compelling presentation by Sophie Otiende, CEO of the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery. Otiende challenged everyone to engage lived experience into their policy formation and consider modern slavery survivor leaders in their organisation. It was encouraging to have a forum where the discussions involved people with lived experience of modern slavery, often an overlooked element in the policy process.

Day two focussed on the responsible sourcing and procurement methods, as well as the role for technology in fighting modern slavery. It was headlined by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator The Hon Penny Wong, who used her speech to announce Lynn Bell as the Ambassador to Counter Modern Slavery, People Smuggling and Human Trafficking.

Minister Wong told the conference:

“Unweaving modern slavery from the complex knit of global supply chains will take concerted effort across business, government and the community.’

In day two’s final breakout session, Claudio Formisano, the Global Lead for Human Trafficking and Forced Labor at the Business for Social Responsibility, said the most effective IT tools used to detect and combat modern slavery are provided by private groups, not government.

The session focussed on the potential tech innovations to help businesses navigate their ethical sourcing requirements. With recommendations of punitive measures for non-compliance placed onto smaller businesses, government must take greater steps to deliver more resources and help businesses avoid modern slavery. Whether it’s more funding for blockchain projects that can tie the traceability afforded by blockchain with an assessment of worker conditions or intelligence tools to provide businesses with more knowledge about their supply chains, government should not leave the innovation primarily to the private sector.

The final day of the conference headlined by Attorney General, The Hon Mark Dreyfus KC MP, focussed on how Australia’s modern slavery regime will be strengthened. The Attorney General announced his intentions to have a stronger modern slavery legislative regime and a dedicated Anti-Slavery Commissioner in place by the end of this year.

‘There is always more to be done in tackling the scourge of modern slavery, here and abroad. More we can do to help and support victims and survivors. More we can do to ensure businesses are able to identify and address modern slavery risks in their supply chains. More we can do to support the work of civil society organisations, and to hold perpetrators to account,’

‘We are listening and we are acting.’

While it seems clear that the government has set itself some lofty goals in its bid to move forward on modern slavery, I left the conference with many more questions than answers about just how achievable they might be, given so many government initiatives are running at cross purposes.

For example:

  • Will our push to renewable energy sources be able to find minerals not sourced from Xinjiang in China?
  • How will the new Federal Anti-Slavery Commissioner and stronger federal regime interact with the NSW regime and Commissioner?
  • Will the Federal Anti-Slavery Commissioner mimic the NSW Commissioner’s role as not a policing or enforcement role?
  • How closely will the Attorney General stick to Professor McMillian’s independent report recommendations, or will the legislation be watered down?
  • If the mandatory reporting threshold is indeed significantly reduced as Professor McMillan recommended, will businesses that just fall into the threshold have adequate resources to properly complete the necessary reporting?

To name a few.

It remains to be seen whether the conference will be successful in helping build the platform for a stronger modern slavery regulation regime in Australia.

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