A coalition of Australian churches and religious organisations called on the federal government to implement a Modern Slavery Act at a parliamentary inquiry on Friday.
Slavery in Australia is often hidden in plain sight. An estimated 4300 people are enslaved across Australia. Many are migrant workers who are controlled by their employers through psychological abuse or debt bondage.
An inquiry was launched in February this year to examine whether Australia should adopt a national legislation similar to the United Kingdom’s Modern Slavery Act 2015.
The UK government currently requires all large businesses and organisations to publish an annual report on the steps they have taken to ensure their global supply chains are free of slavery and human trafficking.
UnitingWorld national director Rob Floyd gave evidence at the inquiry alongside members of the Australian Freedom Network (AFN). The Uniting Church is a part of the AFN, which consists of faith leaders from various Christian denominations, along with Muslims, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist representatives.
Mr Floyd spoke about the conditions faced by temporary migrant workers in Australia’s horticultural sector. Unscrupulous labour hire contractors prey on foreign workers with limited English skills and subject them to long working hours, degrading living conditions and massive underpayment of wages.
An ABC Four Corners investigation in 2015 revealed that some people in these industries worked up to 22 hours a day for as little as $4 an hour.
The sector employs many migrant workers from countries in the Pacific, with which the Uniting Church has a number of strong church partnerships.
In the AFN’s statement to the inquiry, Uniting Church President Stuart McMillan called human trafficking “an abomination of human rights and dignity”.
“The Uniting Church in Australia believes all people are precious and entitled to live with dignity because they are God’s children,” Mr McMillan said.
“Each person’s life and rights need to be protected or the human community – the reflection of God – is diminished.
“All forms of slavery and forced labour are an abuse of human rights and contrary to the gospel of God’s love in Christ for all human beings and the earth.”
The AFN argued that a Modern Slavery Act would be a landmark piece of legislation in Australia and a significant step towards eradicating slavery from domestic and global supply chains.
They called on the federal government to appoint an independent anti-slavery commissioner and create legislation that requires all large organisations conducting business in Australia to publish an annual Modern Slavery Statement.
The statements would detail action firms have taken to eliminate human trafficking from their supply chains.
The network also recommended the creation of a free publicly-accessible central repository for all Modern Slavery Statements as a means to improve public accountability.