Modern slavery legislation

March 02, 2020

Modern slavery legislation

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Dr Jennifer Semple

‘Slavery? Archaic, barbaric practice. Thank goodness that’s a thing of the past.’

Lamentably, it is not. According to the International Labour Organisation there were 40.3 million victims of modern slavery around the world in 2016, approximately 25% of whom were children.[1]

That’s 40.3 million individual people exploited, perhaps through forced labour or debt bondage, forced prostitution or marriage, or trafficked as mere commodities.

‘But… at least there’s none in Australia, right?’

Again, sadly untrue. The Commonwealth Government estimated that up to 1,900 people were living in conditions of modern slavery in Australia between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 financial years.[2] The Global Slavery Index put this estimate considerably―and alarmingly―higher at 15,000 in 2016.[3]

And, with increasingly global procurement it is possible that even the most responsible businesses—here and overseas—may have undetected modern slavery in their supply chains. Which means modern slavery may have touched even the most conscientious and socially responsible purchaser.

As NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian put it, ‘Unfortunately, all of us have likely unintentionally been party to modern slavery in supply chains—for example, through the clothing we wear, the technology we use and the food we eat.’[4] Of all imports by G20 countries, which include Australia, the Global Slavery Index identifies imported laptops, computers and mobile phones as having the highest risk of modern slave input, followed by clothing and fish.[5]

As a crime that is ‘hidden in plain sight’, modern slavery is not always easy to uncover. But just as some higher-risk products have been identified, some higher risk situations are also known, including where there is high poverty, where there are a lot of migrant workers, and where there are few legal protections for workers.

Many Christian and other religious organisations have been active in promoting meaningful action to eradicate modern slavery. For example, the multi-faith Australian Freedom Network (AFN) formed for this sole purpose, comprising 18 faith leaders who publicly committed their communities to practical action against slavery in Australia. In December 2016, the AFN wrote to then Prime Minister the Hon. Malcolm Turnbull urging the introduction of a Modern Slavery Act.

Many Christian organisations also made submissions relating to the proposed draft legislation. These included the Anglican Church of Australia, which in its submission supporting a strong Modern Slavery Act stated that human trafficking and slavery are ‘clearly an abuse of the dignity and need to care for all people made in the image of God’.[6]

On 1 January 2019, Australia became one of only a handful of countries to adopt modern slavery legislation with the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth) (the Act) entering into force.

The Act requires certain Australian entities to prepare a Modern Slavery Statement every year describing their actions to assess and address modern slavery risks in their organisation and supply chain. The Act will capture around 3000 entities that have annual revenue of A$100 million or more, including commercial, not-for-profit and government organisations. Other entities have no legal obligations under the Act; however, they can opt in if they wish.

The Modern Slavery Business Engagement Unit at the Department of Home Affairs, responsible for implementing the Act, has indicated that reporting entities are expected to show a meaningful attempt to identify risks of modern slavery in their organisation and supply chain. They need to describe progress and areas for future focus rather than to have identified and addressed all risks. At this stage there are no punitive penalties for non-compliance.

The Act has already been effective in increasing awareness of the human rights abuse that is modern slavery. Will it be effective in eradicating, or at least minimising, the practice? It is early days for the legislation, so more will be known when the first reporting cycles are completed.

Regardless, the Christian motivation to end slavery is not underpinned by human legislation, but by God’s word. In his 1791 letter to William Wilberforce, John Wesley described slavery as an ‘execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion … and of human nature’―strong words that capture his abhorrence at the inhumanity that is the enslavement of fellow humanity.[7] Genesis 1:26-27 describes humans as being made in the image of God. Every human therefore has innate value and dignity that should be respected, not commoditised or exploited.


Dr Jennifer Semple is Innovation and Education Manager at Accord Australasia, and attends Bexley North Anglican Church.


[1] International Labour Office (ILO) & Walk Free Foundation 2017, Methodology of the global estimates of modern slavery: Forced labour and forced marriage, ILO. [All URLs accessed 12 December 2019].

[2] .

[3] Downloadable from



[6] (the submission is #4 on the list).


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