The Australian Modern Slavery Act 2018 (MSA) aims to combat modern slavery in the operations and supply chains of Australian businesses by requiring them to report on their efforts to address this issue. However, the question remains whether the Act is fit for purpose. This new report, based on data collected from a business survey and focus groups conducted in 2022 and 2023, offers new insights to inform policy change and business practices by examining the gaps between policy and practice in corporate modern slavery statements.
Effectiveness and barriers
Our investigation gathered input from respondents regarding the MSA’s effectiveness, best practices for implementing remediation measures, and potential reforms. The report presents evidence of corporate responses triggered by the MSA and stakeholders’ perceptions of its impact. Findings reveal a broad consensus that the current corporate responses to the Australian MSA are generally not benefiting victim-survivors of modern slavery. While the MSA raises awareness in the best case, it may also provide a superficial appearance of compliance for businesses that continue to depend on opaque supply chains and cheap labor without substantive commitment to addressing abuses.
Two critical issues highlighted by survey and focus group participants for improving policy and practices to address modern slavery are enhancing supplier relationships and stakeholder engagement. Respondents identified several barriers to effective remediation, including current procurement practices, low trust between suppliers and reporting entities, and inadequate resourcing by businesses for remediation efforts that would compensate and empower victim-survivors of modern slavery. Remediation is a crucial aspect of addressing modern slavery, and effective processes must prioritise risk to people over risk to business.
Remediation and potential reform
The findings also offer insights into practices that may contribute to more effective remediation of modern slavery, providing valuable lessons for government policy focus and businesses seeking to improve their approach to remedy. Survey data indicates that participants who engage key stakeholders in remediation, such as trade unions, report the most effective approaches. Other essential tools include risk management practices like supplier training and increased transparency from suppliers—practices currently utilised by Australian businesses.
Data from this report and previous research demonstrate a strong desire for MSA reform and the need to incentivise improved practices. A majority of survey respondents:
- Endorse establishing an Anti-Slavery Commissioner;
- Support harmonising the MSA with international standards, such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), and emerging legislation in other countries;
- Agree that mandating human rights due diligence requirements would lead to improved responses to addressing modern slavery;
- Support a mix of policy measures, including sanctions and incentives (such as disqualification from government tenders, financial penalties, and director liability) to better tackle modern slavery.
There is a clear disconnect between policy and implementation when it comes to addressing modern slavery within the operations and supply chains of Australian businesses. This stems from a lack of transparency in corporate supply chains, which hinders both the detection and resolution of modern slavery issues. To effectively combat this, it is essential to prioritize enhancing supplier relationships and collaborating with key stakeholders such as trade unions. The problem can only be resolved if it is first acknowledged and understood. Gaining better insight into labor conditions in supply chains through engagement with frontline workers is a fundamental and indispensable initial measure in the battle against modern slavery.
All respondents advocated for reform of the MSA to drive company action that benefits victim-survivors of modern slavery, rather than merely promoting superficial compliance with the Act. This report, therefore, serves as a call to action for both policymakers and businesses to work together to enhance the effectiveness of the MSA and genuinely address the issue of modern slavery in corporate supply chains.