The ACTU welcomes the opportunity to make a submission to the 2022 review of Australia’s Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth) – hereafter, MSA. 

Modern slavery is a broad term used to refer to a wide spectrum of crimes that includes forced labour, but the common thread is any situation of exploitation where a person cannot refuse or leave work or service to another due to threats, violence, coercion, abuse or deception. Modern slavery – in particular, forced labour – is a central issue of concern for the Australian Union movement, both in terms of the rights of workers in Australia and around the world. 

The definition of forced or compulsory labour1, 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 work3 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, and physical and sexual violence. As such, the ACTU believes that the issue of forced labour, on the extreme end of the spectrum, cannot be addressed without addressing the root causes of labour exploitation. The problem is not just a few ‘bad apple’ employers – the problem of worker exploitation is entrenched and endemic. Drivers of exploitation include insecurity due to temporary visa status and visa arrangements that tie workers to their employers; insecure work arrangements including arms-length employment arrangements such as labour hire; and lack of respect for fundamental workers’ rights including freedom of association. This understanding of forced labour means that responses should include measures to empower workers and respect fundamental workers’ rights including freedom of association and protection of the right to organise and collective bargaining so that workers are empowered to join a union, bargain collectively, and speak out about exploitation without fear of reprisal. 

There are also forms of labour exploitation that should be recognised and tackled in their own right – regardless of whether or not they fit the technical definition of forced labour. A factory collapsing and killing garment workers, the sacking of a worker for raising a workplace complaint or a worker paid less just because she is a woman are all such examples of exploitation and violations of core ILO Conventions. Unlike the current MSA, these Conventions are widely included in the key international business and human rights instruments, trade agreements and a wide range of multistakeholder initiatives that seek to address labour standards in global supply chains.