A leading human rights law expert from The Australian National University (ANU) has urged the Federal Government to take a lead to improve Australian companies' transparency about human rights problems that may occur in supply-chains overseas.
Associate Professor Dr Jolyon Ford has given evidence to a Parliamentary Inquiry into establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia. He said Australia needed legislation that improves on the 2015 UK Modern Slavery Act, the model being looked at by the Australian Government.
"The legislation being proposed would require big companies to each year report on their website what, if any, steps have been taken to ensure their supply chains are free of any human trafficking or forced labour," Associate Professor Ford said.
"However, there are no legislative consequences if a company fails to do the required reporting.
"The UK model leaves it to the market, consumers, lobby groups or the media to pick-up if a company hasn't reported, or if its report is at odds with its practice, and to make a big deal about it. It relies on that public shaming.
"With an issue as important as slavery, some feel that legislation in Australia should go further and impose penalties for non-reporting."
Associate Professor Ford suggested that the UK model of relying on public or market responses, not statutory penalties, does have some merits, and is more reassuring to businesses as they learn to deal with these issues in complex supplier relations.
However, he suggested that Government needed to at very least support a central listing by ASIC, a special commissioner, or some other body of those companies that fail to do the required reporting.
"The Government could host a centralised list of companies that have complied and companies that have not," he said.
Associate Professor Ford said that the Government is likely to face arguments from people who feel laws should go further and force companies to take steps to actually eliminate slavery from their supply chains, not just report on steps being taken. However, he was supportive of the legislation going ahead.
"The idea currently has bi-partisan support, and you have a whole lot of submissions from big businesses saying they are open to it," Associate Professor Ford said.
"Don't let the idea that the legislation needs to be perfect get in the way of achieving a result."
The submission to the Inquiry into establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia can be read in full here: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Foreign_Affairs_Defence_and_Trade/ModernSlavery/Public_Hearings.