Pandemic Letter 12 – Modern Slavery (28/08/2020)

There are 40-45 million people in the world who can be regarded as slaves.  In Australia, there are over 4,000 persons whose lives can be characterised as involving slavery.  Those people include some persons working in “massage” parlours, young girls who are compelled into forced marriages, some persons who are working in restaurants, on building sites, fruit picking, working in consulates and embassies, some persons who are, on one view, illegal immigrants, but who have come to Australia as a result of recruiting by criminal organisations.

While modern slavery is different from, say, the Atlantic slave trade which flourished in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, in the course of colonisation of both North and South America, to the shame of England, France, Portugal and Spain, it still exists.  In many ways, the 21st century is a golden age of slavery. 

The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP, has urged all people of goodwill to sign a petition calling for the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (NSW) to commence. 

Who Is A Slave?
There are three criteria which are commonly used to determine whether or not someone is a slave.  The first is the complete control of one person by another through the use of violence – both physical and psychological.  The second is doing hard labour for little or no pay.  The third is economic exploitation – making a profit for the slaveholder.  If you are uncertain as to whether someone, who appears to be in a difficult situation, is a slave, ask:  can this person walk away?  Slaves cannot do so readily, and criminal acts committed against them go unpunished.

One reason criminal conduct against slaves goes unpunished is that much modern slavery takes place out of public view.  Another reason is that enslaved persons are typically too brutalised, too traumatised, too fearful, and too intimidated to speak up and run away.  For many of us the problem is apathy.  We do not ask the right questions, we mind our own business, and we do not interfere.

Modern Slavery Act 2018 (NSW)
It is in this context that, on 21 June 2018, the New South Wales Parliament, to its credit, unanimously passed the Modern Slavery Act.  That Act received the Royal Assent on 27 June 2018.  The Modern Slavery Act 2018 was passed with the support of all parties in Parliament.

Undeniable Moral Imperative
At the time, the Premier of NSW, Gladys Berejiklian, said: “There is an undeniable moral imperative to take action in relation to all forms of slavery.”  To her credit, the Premier herself, moved the legislation in the Legislative Assembly.

Paul Green MLC
The Modern Slavery Act had originally been proposed by then Christian Democrat, Legislative Councillor, Paul Green, who was, arguably, in a position of control, to support or deny, passage of government legislation in the Legislative Council.  Unfortunately, after the Modern Slavery Act was passed by both Houses of the NSW Parliament, and assented to by the Governor, Mr Green lost his seat in the Legislative Council, and hence his position to determine the passage of government legislation.

Modern Slavery Act 2019
Meanwhile, on 1 January 2019, similar legislation passed by the Commonwealth Parliament, the Modern Slavery Act 2019 (Cth), commenced.  However, the federal legislation lacks the “teeth” of the NSW legislation.   The federal legislation, whilst praiseworthy, has no possibility of being anywhere near as effective as the NSW legislation.

Supply Chains
Both the NSW legislation and the federal legislation provide for reporting of supply chains that rely on slavery.  However, the federal legislation has no financial penalties. Compliance with the federal legislation is voluntary.  By contrast, the NSW legislation provides financial penalties up to $1.1 million for failure to prepare a statement, and failure to publish a statement, providing false or misleading information.

Reporting Threshold
The NSW legislation has a reporting threshold of $50 million, whereas the Commonwealth legislation has a reporting threshold of $100 million.  The NSW legislation imposes reporting obligations on NSW government agencies.  John McCarthy QC, Chairman of the Sydney Archdiocese Antislavery Taskforce comments: “Today the risk that a product or service is tainted with slave labour somewhere in the supply chain occurs in almost all industries.”  Many of the products which we buy and use are derived from components which have been produced by modern slaves elsewhere in the world.

Anti-Slavery Commissioner
The NSW legislation also establishes an Anti-Slavery Commissioner to oversee the NSW response to modern slavery including supporting business in an attempt to eliminate supply chains based on slavery.

Putting Slavers Out of Business
The NSW legislation creates modern slavery offences and extends victim support and apprehended violence order schemes to the victims of modern slavery.  The NSW legislation provides for orders against slavers to put them out of business. 

Modern Slavery Committee
The NSW legislation establishes a Modern Slavery Committee within the NSW Parliament, tasked with enquiring into and reporting on matters relating to modern slavery.

UK Anti-Slavery Commissioner
The United Kingdom’s former Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland OBE has commended the NSW legislation as being amongst the best legislation in the world.  Mr Hyland has said:  “The New South Wales Government, as leading one of the largest economies in the Pacific Region, has an opportunity to demonstrate global leadership in the fight against modern slavery by introduction of one of the most comprehensive laws in the world.  It will bring improved victim identification and care, introduce an Anti-Slavery Commissioner, provide continual monitoring, raise awareness and lead businesses into generating ethical profits, free from exploitation and modern slavery.” 

Nothing Happened
Unfortunately, after the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (NSW) was given the Royal Assent on 27 June 2018 nothing happened – until 7 August 2019 when the NSW Government referred the Act to the Legislative Standing Committee on Social Issues.  On 25 March 2020, it would seem to the surprise of the NSW Government, the Legislative Council Standing Committee on Social Issues reported, endorsing the legislation, but making a number of suggestions as to how the Modern Slavery Act 2018 might be improved.

No Adequate Explanation for Delay in Commencement 
On 13 May 2020 the Legislative Council passed a resolution calling on the Government to proclaim the Modern Slavery Act 2018 by 1 July 2020 with or without amendments proposed by the Legislative Council Standing Committee on Social Issues.  To date, the NSW Government has not caused the Modern Slavery Act 2018 to commence.  The NSW Government has provided no adequate explanation as to the delay in the commencement of the legislation.

Archbishop Anthony Fisher
The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP has commented on this, saying: “NSW was offering the nation and the world a lead in this, by holding [itself] to a higher standard than many. Yet here we are, two years later, and the law has still not come into force.”

Fit for Purpose
Two members of the Legislative Council Committee, Daniel Mookhey MLC, and Greg Donnelly MLC, commented that the Modern Slavery Act 2018 when it passed Parliament was fit for its intended purpose – and that remains the case today.  They supported minor or technical amendments to the Act to enable it to operate more effectively in conjunction with federal legislation. However, they commented that there are no other changes that are warranted or justified.

Big End of Town
There is a view that the NSW Government is controlled by the big end of town, in particular, by lobbyists and corporations.  Whether or not the Modern Slavery Act is proclaimed to commence may be thought to be a test of whether this is the case.    The Premier Gladys Berejiklian has the opportunity to disprove the suggestion that the NSW Government is the plaything of lobbyists and the big end of town by bringing the Modern Slavery Act 2018 into force immediately.  Can the big end of town checkmate what the Premier Gladys Berejiklian has called the undeniable moral imperative to take action in relation to all forms of slavery? 

Nevertheless, the issue is, perhaps, not quite that clear – there are many major Australian corporations supportive of the NSW Modern Slavery Act.  These major corporations do not wish to be part of supply chains dependent on slave labour.  Similarly, there are NSW Government backbenchers, indeed minsters, who do not wish the NSW Government to fall over from pressure from lobbyists, and pro-slavery corporations.   

Pope Francis
Pope Francis has repeatedly expressed his concern at the existence of modern slavery. Pope Francis has urged immediate and effective action to eradicate forced labour and modern slavery and human trafficking, and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by the end of 2025, end child labour in all its forms. 

The position of the Church, and therefore of those who seek to be consistent in their practice of the faith, requires that they do all that they can for the elimination of modern slavery.  Like abortion, slavery is a moral issue, not a political issue.  It is about respect for human dignity, the dignity of all persons, about human rights, the human rights of all persons.  One cannot put a dollar value on human dignity, nor a dollar value on human rights.  Political realpolitik is no justification for a failure to act against modern slavery.

Catechism of the Catholic Church
The Catechism of the Catholic Church comments that the Seventh Commandment forbids acts or enterprises that, for any reason – selfish or ideological, commercial or totalitarian – lead to the enslavement of human beings, to their being bought, sold and exchanged like merchandise, in disregard of their personal dignity.  It is a sin against the dignity of persons, and their fundamental rights, to reduce them by violence to their productive value or as a source of profit.  St Paul directed a Christian master to treat his Christian slave “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother…both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

That is what is in issue – as to the commencement of the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (NSW).

Michael McAuley