The ACTU welcomes the opportunity to make a submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties inquiry into the ratification of the International Labour Organisation Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention 1930 (No. 29).

The definition of forced or compulsory labour, according to the ILO Forced Labour Convention, is ‘all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily.

As the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade noted in its report into establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia.

While there is an important distinction between labour exploitation and the more serious crimes of forced labour and slavery, the Committee recognises that these crimes exist on the same spectrum of exploitation.

We can conceive of this spectrum of exploitation as one between decent work on the one hand, and extreme exploitation such as forced labour and slavery-like practices that can include violations of labour and/or criminal law, on the other. Exploitative practices along this spectrum can include wage theft, unlawful deductions, sexual harassment and assault, sham contracting, substandard accommodation. As such, the ACTU believes that the issue of forced labour, on the extreme end of the spectrum, cannot be addressed without addressing the causes of labour exploitation.

Forced labour and other forms of labour exploitation cannot be tackled without the effective implementation of ILO Convention 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise and Convention 98 on Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining so that workers are empowered to join a union, bargain collectively, and speak out about issues in their workplaces without fear of reprisal. These are recognised by the ILO as ‘enabling rights’ for the enjoyment of all other rights at work – however insecure work and insecure visa status both present barriers to workers being able to speak out about labour exploitation.

The Forced Labour Protocol brings ILO standards against forced labour into the modern era and recognises that combating forced labour is not solely a criminal justice issue, but at its core is about labour rights. The Protocol highlights the key role that trade unions, businesses and Governments have to play ending forced labour.

We recommend the Australian Government ratify the Protocol as soon as practicable, without reservation.

We disagree, however, with the assertions made in the National Interest Analysis that Australia is already effectively implementing its obligations under the Protocol. This submission therefore makes a number of recommendations for reforms the Commonwealth must make to law and practice in order to fully meet its obligations under the Protocol to prevent and eliminate forced labour.