Opinion11 Feb 2019

Modern slavery business supply chain legislation: the beginning of a virtuous circle?

The UK and Australia are learning from each others experience of modern slavery legislation to better drive accountability in business supply chains.

Rohingya refugee Hasina Begum
Rohingya refugee Hasina Begum Photo Credit: GMB Akash via GMB Akash Photography.

In what may become a virtuous circle, the Australian Modern Slavery Act 2018 is now being used as an exemplar for the UK Government’s independent review of its 2015 Modern Slavery Act.

As only the second piece of dedicated national modern slavery legislation, the Australian Act has set a new standard for increasing the accountability of large businesses monitoring modern slavery within their organisations and supply chains. The passage of the Australian legislation was a momentous step in Walk Free’s campaign to have companies take responsibility for their role in eradicating modern slavery.

The UK review, chaired by Frank Field MP, has produced two interim reports, the first focused on the role of the independent anti-slavery commissioner and the second on transparency in supply chains.

In the UK Act, weaknesses in the supply chain reporting requirements and the poor rate of business compliance have been subject to much criticism. The Australian Act improved on this by; establishing a publicly funded repository for all statements; setting mandatory criteria for reporting; including a requirement on the government and public commercial corporations to report; providing for voluntary reporting by smaller businesses; and giving the minister the power to name and shame businesses that refuse to comply.

It now appears likely the UK review will recommend the adoption of many of Australia’s improvements in its final report. They have also gone further than Australia has in recommending the gradual introduction of sanctions for non-compliant businesses overseen by the office of an independent anti-slavery commissioner.

The review emphatically endorsed the need for the office to be truly independent of government and for the commissioner to have the real capacity “to scrutinise and hold the government and its agencies accountable for their performance”.

The findings of the UK review reinforce the arguments and concerns raised by Walk Free and its partners when campaigning to have an office of an independent commissioner included in the Australian Act.

Nick Grono, CEO of The Freedom Fund, thinks it’s encouraging to see both countries open to learning from one another’s experience.

“Hopefully we are seeing the beginning of more effective regulations on slavery, as the Australian legislation has addressed some of the gaps in the UK legislation. However, both have further to go, particularly to address those companies that wilfully flout the legislation, as currently there are no effective penalties for non-compliance,” said Grono.

By omitting an independent commissioner to oversee compliance Australia missed an opportunity to really energise the anti-slavery agenda and harness the awareness created by The Modern Slavery Act’s passing. A commissioner would not only provide an independent source of advice but also the power to scrutinise the government, its agencies and their performance.

The UK Home Office and the Australian Department of Home Affairs, together with their political masters, are comfortable with the power conferred on them under existing arrangements, where they control the level of scrutiny on their actions.

Both the UK and Australian Modern Slavery Acts require amendments to ensure each has a powerful independent commissioner’s office capable of providing leadership with the capacity to hold all stakeholders, including government, accountable. Only then will these two acts be able to deliver the promised impact we seek.

We are hopefully witnessing the beginning of a virtuous circle where the UK and Australian governments learn from each other’s experience to build effective measures that ensure all businesses are active in driving modern slavery from their supply chains. Walk Free will continue to work to expand the circle of countries adopting best practice modern slavery responses.