Most people in Australia have no idea whether or not they are contributing to slavery. That’s because most of us believe slavery ended one hundred or more years ago.
It’s true that despite its legislative abolition in Britain in 1833, slavery was still alive and well across the colonies at the turn of the last century. In fact it was something a member of my own family endured.
That is why the issue of modern slavery and the fact that there are thousands of people in slavery or slavery-like conditions in Australia today, for me is personal.
My great-grandfather, Laxman Singh, suffered in slavery-like conditions as an indentured labourer in Fiji. He left India in 1902 on a treacherous, month-long voyage chasing dreams of economic prosperity and signed a “girmit”, or agreement, to work on the British empire’s sugarcane plantations in Fiji.
This harsh indentured labourer scheme was a system of forced labour, under which over 60,000 Indians endured slavery-like conditions.
Laxman and his fellow “girmityas” were treated appallingly. They were routinely exploited, punished, overworked and underpaid. Their work conditions were inhumane and made worse by substandard or non-existent medical care. The mortality rate for girmityas was very high, but my great-grandfather survived.
The British empire finally abolished the indentured system in 1916. Our family has never forgotten my grandfather’s horrific experiences. Yet the dreadful conditions he endured 100 years ago are exactly what an estimated 4,500 people in Australia are experiencing today.
Many of the 45.7 million people trapped in slavery and slavery like conditions around the world two-thirds of them in the Asia-Pacific are enslaved in the global supply chains of products and services Australians use every day; victims of exploitation in private sector activities, such as manufacturing, construction and agriculture.
In Australia, they tend to be men, women and children trapped in forced labour, sex traffic and debt bondage by exploitative criminal syndicates.
There is every chance that pieces of the produce you bought at the supermarket were grown for you by a forced labourer trapped on a farm. It’s entirely possible that the clothes your daughter bought with the pocket money she’d saved were made by a girl younger than her, kept from school and forced to work.
Think about examples like the 150 workers mainly from Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam found in a recent raid on a farm in Western Australia. They were working illegally, living in very poor conditions and being victimised by abuse and exploitation, and possibly forced labour.
Think about the child labourers of Uzbekistan, the world’s fifth largest exporter of cotton, whose government has for decades used the forced labour of children to harvest cotton by hand, which is then exported to China and Bangladesh and turned into clothes bought by Australians.
They have no hope unless we, as a society, take action. Not action that will have an impact limited to Australia, but action that could help people held in slavery and slavery-like conditions everywhere.
No person wants to purchase goods tainted by slavery. No business wants slavery in its supply chains. And yet, without information, we as consumers can’t make the choice to support ethical businesses.
Modern slavery acts and similar legislation are currently in place in the UK, France, Canada and the EU. Enacting a modern slavery act in Australia will ensure that we are doing all we can to fight and finish this horrific practice.
It will enable Australia to live up to its commitments to the United Nations sustainable development goal 8.7 – to take immediate, effective measures to eradicate forced labour and end all forms of modern slavery, human trafficking and child labour.
That is why Labor supports an Australian modern slavery act. It would require major Australian companies to publicly report on the steps they are taking to tackle slavery in their business or supply chain. It would ensure that no Australian company is either directly or indirectly engaged in modern slavery.
A central repository of statements would be established by the government and there would be penalties for non-compliance with the act. The list of the companies in Australia required to report under our Australian modern slavery act would be publicly available. If you wanted to know whether the company taking your money is doing enough, or anything, to find and fix slavery risks in its supply chains, you could.
Labor has also committed to establishing an anti-slavery commissioner to help victims of modern slavery right here in Australia, and fight slavery both in Australia and overseas.
There are 45.8 million people living in slavery around the world today. We need to start setting them free.