This week, the Senate passed a bill to amend federal customs regulations to ban the importation of any product made using forced labor.
The government introduced the Modern Slavery Act in 2018. Do we need another law on this issue? Should we now make it illegal to import goods produced by forced labor into Australia?
The short answer is yes.
Modern slavery law seems not to be enough
Beginning in 2020, the Modern Slavery Act requires organizations with annual revenue exceeding $ 100 million to publish a statement annually disclosing the risks of modern slavery in their operations and supply chain. , the measures taken to deal with these risks and the effectiveness of these actions. has been.
To date, more than 4,400 entities have filed returns. But the first analyzes show that the first statements are disappointing.
A study of the Modern Slavery of Business ASX200 reports shows a “race in the middle”: Companies seek to comply with legal requirements under the law without disclosing or taking more action than their industry peers.
Another report on the first year of reporting noted that while “some organizations have gone to great lengths to understand their supply chains and the risks therein […] Others have barely scratched the surface ”.
Although still in its infancy, the Australian Modern Slavery Act is likely to follow its counterpart in the UK, spawning cosmetic compliance rather than action.
As of yet, there is no sign of the ‘race to the top’ to improve workplace practices predicted by the Australian government.
What does the draft customs amendment bill add?
The amendment to federal customs regulations that was passed by the Senate is modeled on the United States Tariff Act, which prohibits the importation of goods manufactured by forced labor.
The number of industries, goods and services associated with forced labor is staggering.
Every two years, the United States Department of Labor files a list of goods produced by child labor or forced labor.
In 2020, 155 goods from 77 countries were identified.
The Tariff Act allows United States Customs and Border Protection to investigate allegations of forced labor and to detain imports under a “hold and release” order. There are currently dozens of active orders listed in the US registry.
If a release order is issued, the goods will be refused entry or seized until the importer can prove that the goods were not produced by forced labor.
Changing Australia’s customs law would grant similar powers to the Australian Border Force.
Moral leadership, not market morality
The Customs Amendment Bill was introduced by Independent Senator Rex Patrick, with multi-party support from Labor, Greens and MPs. He was not supported by the Morrison government.
For the amendment to take effect, the bill would also need to empower the government-controlled lower house.
Unfortunately, the government has so far been reluctant to intervene directly to combat modern slavery and has relied instead on market enforcement.
Australia’s Modern Slavery Act does not impose penalties on reporting entities for failing to file or for filing an incomplete report.
The government also failed to appoint an anti-slavery commissioner with the authority and resources to monitor compliance.
Instead, law enforcement relies on the market.
The idea behind it is that poor reporting will lead to a negative reaction from consumers or investors, while reporting conversely offers an opportunity to showcase efforts to combat modern slavery and improve reputation. .
Since we have not witnessed the planned ‘race to the top’, what the government needs now is moral leadership in supporting the Bill to amend the Customs Bill. , rather than continuing to rely on the morality of the market.
Dr Martijn Boersma is Senior Lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney Business School
Professor Justine Nolan is the Director of the Australian Human Rights Institute, UNSW Sydney