Australia’s modern slavery laws must be strengthened

A coalition of human rights advocates, unions, faith groups and academics have today called on the Albanese Government to address major issues with Australia’s Modern Slavery Act and the proposed new Anti-Slavery Commissioner role.

In an open letter to the Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus KC MP, 41 civil society organisations and academics called on the Albanese Government to urgently strengthen the laws to require large companies to address modern slavery risks in their global operations and supply chains.

An independent statutory review of the Modern Slavery Act last year led by Professor John McMillan found that Australia’s Modern Slavery Act 2018 had “not yet caused meaningful change” and made 30 recommendations to strengthen corporate modern slavery responses and regulatory oversight. This included a due diligence obligation and penalties for companies that fail to report or include false information. The Government has yet to formally respond to the Review.

The coalition welcomed the Albanese Government’s efforts to establish an independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner for Australia, but called on the Government to strengthen the proposed Commissioner’s investigative and enforcement powers and increase its budget to ensure it is appropriately resourced.

The Albanese Government now has an opportunity to introduce much-needed reforms to Australia’s modern slavery laws so they drive real change for workers in Australian supply chains.

Professor Justine Nolan, Director, Australian Human Rights Institute:
“Australia is now at a critical juncture in its path to tackling modern slavery. The establishment of an independent and well-resourced Anti-Slavery Commissioner will need to be a key part of the government’s future strategy if we are to show the world we are serious about helping end this scourge.”

Michele O’Neil, President, Australian Council of Trade Unions: 
“More than three years into the operation of the Modern Slavery Act, it’s clear that the Australian law is not strong enough to deliver real improvements for workers in situations of modern slavery in the operations and supply chains of Australian companies. We call on the Government to reform the Act ¬– starting with strengthening the role and powers of the Anti-Slavery Commissioner - to ensure that companies are taking action to tackle modern slavery and that every worker’s rights are protected.”

Keren Adams, Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre: 
“Every person should be able to work in freedom and dignity, without threats of violence, coercion or abuse. But we know that in Australia today, up to 41,000 people are estimated to be living and working in conditions of modern slavery. By strengthening Australia’s modern slavery laws and establishing a strong independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, the Albanese Government can support people who are victim survivors of modern slavery, drive change in corporate practices and ensure no Australian companies are profiting from exploitation.”

Carolyn Kitto, Co-Director, Be Slavery Free:
“In 2018 we boasted that we were leading the world in our actions on modern slavery, and we were. We can no longer make that claim. It is one thing to have good legislation; it is another thing to actually decide that you're going to put in place the things that make that legislation actionable and enforceable.”

Ramila Chanisheff, President, Australian Uyghur Tangritagh Women's Association:
"Without an Anti-Slavery Commissioner who will be able to enforce tangible legislation and actions to hold industries to account, Uyghurs will continue to be enslaved in all products made or supplied by China. Uyghurs are facing horrific human rights abuses, and the Australian Government needs to start taking meaningful action to ensure we are not complicit in modern-day slavery.”

Read the open letter here

In 2022, academic and civil society partners released a major report which found that companies were still failing to identify obvious modern slavery risks in their supply chains or take action to address them three years into the Act’s operation. 

A survey of nearly 90 business groups on the impact of Australia’s Modern Slavery Act, released in 2023, found 70% supported the establishment of an Anti-Slavery Commissioner and 61% would likely improve modern slavery responses if required to undertake human rights due diligence.