Standing up for Canberra

Modern Slavery Bill

Slavery isn't something most Australians associate with the 21st century. They have those images from what they've read and from what they've heard. There are really powerful songs that we're all familiar with, and there is what we've seen on television or at the movies. It is something very much associated with the past, with hundreds of years ago.

There is a sense that it is a thing of the past and not a modern phenomenon. But the extent of human trafficking, of slavery, of forced labour, of child labour, of the removal of organs and of other slavery-like practices in our region and within our borders is appalling. It is happening right now here in Australia. In our region and in Canberra in 2018. It is very much hidden in plain sight, as my colleague mentioned today.

The numbers are horrifying. There are reportedly 48.5 million people in slavery worldwide, many of whom are victims of exploitation in private sector activities like manufacturing, like construction and like agriculture. As we've heard from this side throughout the course of this debate tonight and this afternoon, about two-thirds of people trapped in slavery are reported to be in our own region, the Asia-Pacific region, in 2018.

Many of these people are stuck in the global supply chain of products and services that Australians use each and every day. Victims of exploitation are in private sector activities like manufacturing, construction and agriculture—as I said, in the supply chain of products that either create what we use every day or are used every day. It is estimated that thousands of people are currently trapped in slavery right here in Australia. Those current estimates place around 4,300 people in slavery or slavery-like conditions here in Australia, which is simply horrific in a nation such as ours in the 21st century.

It's particularly distressing that it is happening here in Canberra, in our nation's capital, as I speak. Just recently—in fact, in the last few months—we heard about police raids here in the ACT where women were discovered having been trafficked into the country from Thailand to forcibly work in the ACT sex industry. One woman claimed she was subject to a $50,000 debt, while others were working illegally on tourist visas. This case is still ongoing and before the courts. We've heard about the Filipino workers who were exploited at local massage parlours, forced to work long hours, underpaid, discriminated against and allegedly threatened that their families back home in the Philippines would be killed if they complained to anyone. Imagine the lives that those Filipino workers were living, being exploited in terms of working long hours and being underpaid and discriminated against. Imagine the fear they were living in each and every day about the fact that their family members were going to be killed should they speak out.

That people engage in this activity just outrages me so much. I find I am speechless. I just cannot believe that one individual, individuals, consortia or gangs could actually do this to other human beings—exploit someone and instil that fear in someone. I find it absolutely appalling. I find it horrifying that it is actually happening here in the ACT today, as I speak.

Some of these workers worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, and were paid for only 38 hours per week. They were brought into Australia on 457 visas with the promise of an annual salary of $52,000. Some had their pay docked by $800 per fortnight over a nine-month period because the massage parlour owner deemed the shop was not getting enough income and not getting enough customers. Last year, thanks to the involvement of the AFP and the Fair Work Ombudsman, the workers were each back paid a fraction of what they were owed. Some of these workers are still owed individual amounts ranging from $92,000 to $125,000.

But what about the employers? Deputy Speaker, do you know what they did to avoid all this liability? Those dirty dogs—that's the only term that you can use for the employers exploiting these people so appallingly—actually put the company into voluntary administration. That means that these workers who were being exploited, who were living with fear each and every day that their families were going to be killed, are unlikely to receive everything that they are owed.

Then there are the 20 or so domestic workers who were kept in slavery-like conditions in embassies here in Canberra. They were being forced to work 12- to 18-hour days for a fraction of the minimum wage, with no weekends off, no holidays and no time off in lieu of overtime. They were forbidden to leave the premises. Again, they were locked away, living in fear, and being exploited in the process. While the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade requires all domestic staff in diplomatic residences to hold onto their passports at all times, some of the workers had theirs taken away. The then foreign minister said in a statement that her department 'treats allegations of mistreatment of domestic workers by foreign diplomats very seriously and are a matter for the police'.

But the issue here is the issue of diplomatic immunity. Australian authorities, when there is diplomatic immunity, are powerless to act. I know from having been a diplomat that the requirement is that, when you go and live in someone else's country, yes, there is diplomatic immunity, but you live by the laws. You abide by the laws and you respect the laws of the country in which you are living. So there is a kind of agreement that that's how you go about it if you are being decent. The fact that people are hiding behind diplomatic immunity and making it very difficult for Australian authorities to address these issues of incidents of exploitation and fearmongering is absolutely appalling. If we can't address this through legal means, what political or values based pressure can or should we bring to bear?

We also heard a few weeks ago about the chef working 12-hour shifts in a restaurant six days a week. He had not only been working in those appalling conditions but had also been asked by his boss to pay the boss's tax bill. When I was in Melbourne when I heard this story, I was in a taxi and heading into a conference. The story came up on the radio, and the taxi driver turned to me and said, 'This is an issue that is far more widespread than people are talking about.' He said, 'I know of many instances of this happening.' The fact that this person was getting so badly exploited with 12-hour days six days a week, being underpaid and then being asked to pay the boss's tax bill was not news to the driver. Again, what human being does that to another human being? It's just breathtaking this is actually happening in Australia and we have got these incidents in Canberra in this day and age.

Already we have ratified a number of international legal instruments to combat this exploitation—as we should, because slavery is one of the most heinous human rights abuses possible. We've ratified the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery; the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime; the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children; and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention. As a country and as a parliament, we must do more to prevent this practice. We must be ever-vigilant, and an effective, strong modern slavery act is a key part of that battle.

In August this year, along with another 65 of my colleagues, I met with representatives from the Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans to discuss aspects and recommendations of this bill. We talked about what the face of modern slavery looks like: sex trafficking, child sex trafficking, forced labour, bonded labour or debt bondage, domestic servitude, unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers. We talked about the issue of forced marriage. There have been 173 referrals of forced marriage to the AFP, with the number growing steadily since 2013. The 2018 Trafficking in persons report: June 2018from the Department of State in the United States highlights the actions signatory countries are taking to address modern slavery. Australia is a signatory, but there are still 18 countries that haven't become part of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. The protocol supplements the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. That's 18 countries, and within our own region there are at least six countries that haven't signed up.

In the 2018 Trafficking in persons report, Australia's own country narrative shows we are committed to addressing modern slavery, but it also shows us where we can focus our attention in the future. According to the report, in 2017 we investigated 166 suspected cases of trafficking; prosecuted six defendants; convicted five traffickers, one sex trafficker and four labour traffickers; and investigated one case of domestic slavery in a diplomatic household but were unable to prosecute due to the diplomatic immunity I mentioned before. We prosecuted four defendants for allegedly travelling overseas for child sex tourism, but no convictions were reported.

One of the observations made in the report about Australia's legal framework was the apparent preference to pursue labour and employment charges over trafficking charges. It was noted that the labour and employment charges attract a lesser sentence or penalty than trafficking charges. It is hoped the introduction of the framework outlined in this bill will help address this. It is important to remember that we have come a long way and it has taken some time for us to get to this point where we are even looking at legislation.

It was a Labor government back in 2013 that first recognised the need to consider the risks of slavery-like conditions in Australian supply chains and noted the actions that other countries where taking or were going to undertake in response. The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade recommended the government undertake a review to establish antitrafficking and antislavery mechanisms, including legislation to improve transparency and supply chains, increasing the prominence of fair trade, and the development of a labelling and certification strategy for products and services produced ethically. Noting the hard work and the involvement of non-government organisations in vulnerable communities where slavery-like conditions are able to be identified, the committee also recommended that contracts for these NGOs be refunded one year ahead of the current contract's conclusion.

I know from my conversations with ACRATH that there is some concern about funding certainty from many NGOs working in this area. The current 12-month funding cycle is competitive, meaning many organisations are competing against each other for funding rather than working in a cooperative and collaborative way, the approach that is needed for their work on crime prevention and advocacy and support of trafficked persons. ACRATH has sought a three- to five-year funding cycle from the Department of Home Affairs budget as part of the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking and Slavery. I will be watching this space carefully to see what steps the government takes to move this plan forward in collaboration with the people working on the ground—that is, the NGOs.

One year ago, Labor committed to a modern slavery act with penalties and an independent antislavery commissioner. That's how seriously Labor takes this issue; we put the role of an independent antislavery commissioner front and centre of our act. The commissioner would work with victims of slavery, receive inquiries and complaints and assist business in building best practices that protect their supply chains. The commissioner would also work with civil society to help detect and prevent slavery in Australia, as well as lead our global efforts to fight slavery, including working with other countries and international organisations.

Labor sought to work in a bipartisan way on this issue to develop this legislation, so you can imagine our frustration and disappointment with the current bill. It is without penalties, and evidence provided to the Senate inquiry into this bill showed that in the UK, where there are no penalties, the percentage of businesses that are reported still hovers at around 30 per cent of those that supposedly have an obligation to report. That is just not good enough. The absence of penalties in this bill is baffling. We cannot leave it to these absolutely dirty dogs to police themselves on slavery. We cannot leave it to them. Key stakeholders, including ACRATH, Anti-Slavery Australia and the ACTU have joined Labor in the call for the establishment of an independent antislavery commissioner, and we will be fighting to ensure that Australia gets a slavery act that will actually make a difference.