Twenty-nine-year old Nahida once had dreams of studying and becoming a doctor – but those dreams were crushed when she had to drop out of school at the age of just 13 to work in a factory to support her family.

Sixteen years on, Nahida is still working in the clothing sector in Bangladesh – she toils in a factory six days a week to make clothes that end up on hangers in the Australian shops.

Nahida and daughter

Nahida, a sewing machine operator, helps her daughter, Rafsana, with her homework inside their home in Dhaka, Bangladesh. PICTURE: GMB Akash/Panos/OxfamAUS.

 

"A strong and effective Modern Slavery Act would send a message loud and clear to all Australian companies that abuses of human rights – from the trafficking of people to child labour and servitude - in supply chains are unacceptable. Regrettably, the Modern Slavery Bill being considered by Federal Parliament falls short of providing effective protection to the victims of this abuse."

Nahida is paid a meagre $155 a month, leaving her trapped in a cycle of poverty and facing the constant battle of adequately providing for her seven-year-old daughter Rasfana.

But Nahida told Oxfam last year that she would starve herself to provide properly for Rasfana – and her dreams now focus on providing for her daughter’s education to help her get a better job and a decent life.

While visiting the homes of women like Nahida in the slums of Dhaka two years ago, I learnt her story was all too familiar.

Workers in the factories where our clothes are made – up to 70 per cent of them women – are far too commonly exploited, denied their fundamental right to be paid a living wage.

Gradually Australian companies are coming to realise that they have responsibilities to the women like Nahida who work in their supplier factories. A strong Modern Slavery Act would not be a cure-all for exploitation, but it would be a good first step.

It would force large Australian businesses to turn their attention to human rights risks in their operations and supply chains and make a public statement on the steps they have taken to combat modern slavery.

This move towards greater transparency would see Australian companies playing a more meaningful role in the global fight to eradicate the scourge of modern slavery, which is estimated to affect more than 40 million people around the world.

A strong and effective Modern Slavery Act would send a message loud and clear to all Australian companies that abuses of human rights – from the trafficking of people to child labour and servitude - in supply chains are unacceptable.

Regrettably, the Modern Slavery Bill being considered by Federal Parliament falls short of providing effective protection to the victims of this abuse.

The Government is to be commended for taking the initiative to introduce proposed laws that would require more than 3,000 large companies and other organisations to publish annual public statements on their actions to address modern slavery in their supply chains and operations.

But the proposed law, released for public consultation, has neglected to include penalties for companies that fail to report or disclose misleading information on the steps they have taken to tackle modern slavery.

And this is a critical omission – one which the experience of the United Kingdom has shown to have limited the implementation and impact of similar laws introduced in 2015.

When it comes to addressing slavery, action should not be optional. 

The proposed legislation includes the welcome element of requiring the Government to provide its own statement on modern slavery risks in Commonwealth procurement.

The Government should back up this commitment by committing not to contract with or otherwise support Australian companies that do not comply with the legislation. Such a commitment would be a real incentive for Australian businesses that are being paid from the public purse to observe the legislation and stamp out modern slavery.

The proposed legislation has also failed on key aspects of transparency and accountability.

The Bill excludes the appointment of an independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner who could monitor and report on implementation of the Act, co-ordinate responses to modern slavery and educate companies about their obligations.

These critical missing elements from the proposed modern slavery laws can be addressed through amendments as the Bill makes its way through Parliament later this year.

Now is the time for these changes to ensure that we lead the way in eliminating modern slavery, rather than be left with a hollow statement of admirable principles.

Helen Szoke

 

Dr Helen Szoke is the chief executive of Oxfam Australia.