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Modern slavery legislation: the clock is ticking for Australian companies to prepare their first Modern Slavery Statement
Post by Damian Quail | Posted 1 month ago on Wednesday, October 16th, 2019

Modern slavery legislation has been enacted in Australia. Many larger companies are now legally obliged to prepare Modern Slavery Statements and submit these statements to the Australian Federal Government. The Statements will be published on a publicly accessible register.

At its broadest, the term "modern slavery" refers to any situations of exploitation where a person cannot refuse or leave work because of threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power or deception. It encompasses slavery, servitude, deprivation of liberty, the worst forms of child labour, forced labour, human trafficking, debt bondage, slavery like practices, forced marriage and deceptive recruiting for labour or services. Indicators of modern slavery practices may incude unlawful withholding of wages and identity/travel documents through to excessive work hours and restrictions on movement. Other indicators include recruitment agencies deducting excessive fees from worker remuneration, loans to workers with astronomical interest, and similar practices. 

The Walk Free Foundation, which publishes the annual Global Slavery Index, estimates that 30.4 million people are victims of modern slavery in the Asia Pacific region, including within Australia (Walk Free Foundation, Global Slavery Index 2016, www.globalslaveryindex.org). Many Australian companies source workers, products and services from the Asia Pacific region. 

For many of these larger companies, reports will need to be lodged between 1 July 2020 and 31 December 2020. It is crucial that affected companies begin reviewing their internal processes and supply chains and begin collecting data to comply with the new reporting obligations.

What does the Federal legislation require?

The Federal legislation is the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth). It commenced on 1 January 2019.

Key aspects of the Federal legislation are as follows:

  • companies incorporated in or operating in Australia are required to submit a report - a Modern Slavery Statement - to the Federal Government if the business in Australia (of the company and its subsidiaries) has a minimum annual consolidated revenue of $100 million. Other entities may report voluntarily.
  • Modern Slavery Statements must be lodged with the Home Affairs Minister (currently Peter Dutton).
  • the Modern Slavery Statement must report on the risks of modern slavery in the company's operations and supply chains, and actions the company has taken to address those risks. Part 2 of the Commonwealth Act sets out in detail mandatory criteria that Modern Slavery Statements must address. It includes:
    1. the company's structure, operations and supply chains
    2. modern slavery risks in those operations and supply chains
    3. actions taken by the company to assess and address those modern slavery risks, including due diligence and remediation processes
    4. how the company assesses the effectiveness of actions taken
    5. the process of consultation with its subsidiaries in preparing the Modern Slavery Statement
    6. any other relevant information.
  • the Act defines modern slavery to incorporate conduct that would constitute an offence under existing human trafficking, slavery and slavery-like offence provisions set out in Divisions 270 and 271 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code, as well as conduct covered under international conventions dealing with child labour and other slavery like practices. The definition encompasses slavery, servitude, deprivation of liberty, the worst forms of child labour, forced labour, human trafficking, debt bondage, slavery like practices, forced marriage and deceptive recruiting for labour or services.
  • the first reporting period will be FY2019-2020, and the first report will be due within 6 months of the company's financial year end. For most Australian companies this means that the first Modern Slavery Statement must be given to the Home Affairs Minister between 1 July 2020 and 31 December 2020. Companies with an international financial year may have to report earlier, depending upon the timing of their end of financial year. For example, companies with a 31 March 2020 end of financial year will need to report by 30 September 2020.
  • Modern Slavery Statements will be published on a freely accessible public register on the internet - the Modern Slavery Statements Register.
  • Joint Modern Slavery Statements are permitted for corporate groups. 
  • Modern Slavery Statements must be approved by the Board of Directors of a company. This ensures senior level accountability, leadership and responsibility for modern slavery.
  • If a company fails to comply with a reporting requirement, the Minister may seek an explanation from the company and require the company to undertake remedial action in relation to that requirement. If a company fails to comply with the Minister’s request, the Minister may publish information regarding the company’s failure to comply, including the company's name i.e. this failure will become public knowledge. 

No penalties exist in the legislation for not complying with the Act. However, the Government has indicated that if compliance rates are low, the need for penalties will be considered as part of a three year review of the legislation.

Many prominent Australian companies such as Wesfarmers, South 32, Qantas and Fortescue Metals have already published Modern Slavery Statements.

What does the New South Wales legislation require?

The NSW legislation - the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (NSW) - is not yet in force.  It was assented to on 27 June 2018, but it has not yet commenced operation. On 6 August 2019 the NSW Legislative Council Standing Committee on Social Issues announced an inquiry into the NSW Act. The Committee's recommendations are due on 14 February 2020.

Key aspects of the proposed NSW Act are as follows:

  • it will apply to companies that have employees in NSW that supply goods and services and have a total annual turnover of not less than $50 million
  • financial penalties may be imposed under the Act for failure to comply with the Act. A maximum penalty of $1.1 million is proposed to apply where a company fails to prepare a Modern Slavery Statement, fails to make its Modern Slavery Statement public or provides false or misleading information.
  • appointment of an Anti-Slavery Commissioner. The Commissioner’s role will be focused on public awareness, advocacy and advice.

It is not yet certain whether the NSW legislation will operate in addition to the Federal legislation, or whether it will only operate when the Federal legislation does not apply to a particular company.  The proposed NSW Act states that the reporting requirements under the NSW Act will not apply if the organisation is subject to obligations under a law of the Commonwealth or another State or a Territory. So, a possilbe outcome is that companies that file a Modern Slavery Statement under the Federal legislation will not need to report under the NSW Act as well.  However, companies operating in NSW with revenue between $50 and $100 million may need to comply with the NSW Act once it commences operation, as they will be caught by the NSW Act but not the Federal Act.

What does the Western Australian legislation require?

Nothing yet- Western Australia has not yet enacted its own Modern Slavery legislation. However, it seems inevitable that Western Australian legislation will arrive at some point. 

Next steps

It is crucial that companies required to report under the Modern Slavery Legislation begin reviewing their internal processes and supply chains and begin collecting data to comply with the new reporting obligations. This could include: 

  • mapping supply chains and undertaking a risk based assessment of where modern slavery risks may arise in those supply chains
  • identifying potential modern slavery risks in their internal operations
  • reviewing policies and procedures in relation to modern slavery, including supplier codes of conduct and human rights policies
  • revise procurement terms and conditions to cover the new obligations
  • revise employee codes of conduct and policies to address modern slavery issues
  • train employees on modern slavery risks and compliance requirements
  • implement procedures to monitor modern slavery risks internally and within supply chains, as well as procedures to look for indicators of potential modern slavery
  • make sure supply chain participants are aware of the new obligations
  • appointing a senior internal person to take ownership and responsibility for compliance.

For further information on managing your risk and compliance obligations, please contact Damian Quail.  

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