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By - Fiona Nicholson

Published : 08-03-2019

Where to draw the line; Modern Slavery in Australia


On January 1st, 2019 Australia’s first national Modern Slavery Act entered into force and as only the second Act of its kind, worldwide (with Britain claiming first prize, having introduced national anti-slavery laws in 2015), it is certainly representative of a landmark moment in Australian law. In particular, as evidence of both the legislature’s recognition and condemnation of modern slavery.

Yet, what impact does this Act against modern slavery really have? To what degree is accountability held? And who is really protected by its ambit?

For instance, should the laws necessitate that the coffee restock I’ve just ordered for that Business’ office kitchens also be of slave free origin in order to fully satisfy the federal requirements and meet the standard required to state that “I am a verified, slave-free business according to the Slavery Act”?

What about the company car, the petrol I fill it with using the company credit card, or the cleaning company that comes in to clean the office every weekday morning… Do we take these into consideration when we sit down and decide whether our business has met the requirements of these modern slavery laws or not? Or perhaps a better wording of the question is: should we be taking such considerations into account, if not out of legal obligation, out of an ethical one instead?

Perhaps you might feel somewhat like me and when you stare down at the $4 blue-ink, ballpoint pen you’re fidgeting with whilst thinking about all of this, before noticing the notepad tossed over on the side of your desk. You know, one of those godsend bonus stationery items you receive regularly in those conference goody bags. The kind of thing that is often handed out at professional development days you have to attend as part of the legal continuing education requirements… Perhaps it is at this particular moment that the idea of becoming the next big human rights champion suddenly comes crashing down; in an emotional state of existence known as the feeling of being “overwhelmed.”

READ: it all seems impossible.

As a natural pragmatist myself, I am one of the first to admit that, were I to sit-down and attempt to map out the entire production cycle behind these two, deceptively simple and yet nonetheless indispensable, stationery items, I too could feel inclined to throw in the towel, stop reading human rights related articles and to hole up in a blissful state of self-imposed naivety. Unfortunately, however, as a trained lawyer, I am unable to control my natural curiosity and sense of justice. A sense of justice that extends beyond national borders and sovereign jurisdictions. Which leads me to ask the following:

What did it take to create this ballpoint pen? A brand I zealously swear by, the kind I will go to the edges of the earth to find. The non-smudge, soft grip, fine ballpoint kind; the kind that doesn’t leech even if I spill my water bottle all over the papers on which I have written… yet, would I go to the edges of the earth to find out whether the dye worker who produced the magnificent blue ink was also accorded the same respect for human rights that Australian companies are now required to accord its own workers under this Modern Slavery Act?

Or does the full extent of such an entangled ethical “web” leave you as bedazzled as it leaves me feeling? Does the attempt to imagine the full extent of human rights compliance (or lack thereof) behind every individual step of every component of your business seem, somewhat… crushingly onerous. Too much effort; too taxing; too difficult for consideration?

With many Australian law firms seemingly excited about the introduction of the Modern Slavery Bill, indeed this was evidenced via their prolific and positive online publications on the matter, I would like to now invite the individuals at those firms to ask the following question. To ask, if we were to look beyond slavery as something defined exclusively under the parameters of the Modern Slavery Act, would we otherwise find traces of modern slavery in our own business? For instance, in the consumables purchased by the firm: in the desk chair into which we wedge ourselves for many long, overtime work-days (and sometimes weekends); or what about the coffee we drink like it’s going out of fashion; or in the materials it took to make those yellow highlighters (we all know that lawyers love a good highlighter) that we just got bought on sale?

Could a law firm be the first institution to prove their operation as a 100% completely slave free operation in the true sense of the word? In fact, I can think of no one better business or organisation to represent the epitome of ethics, CSR and be a responsible civil citizen than a big-name law firm.

My advice is, thus, the following. Instead of just profiteering from this new Act with the provision of legal advice to those companies that must adhere to the new legal regulations, wouldn’t it be great if we saw a law firm take initiative and be the face of this new regulation. To be a pioneer of real change for a slave free future. Wouldn’t it be great to see these regulators of justice also be the face of justice and the ideal example of human rights compliance? So, my learned lawyer friends, I invite you to consider taking on this challenge, to be remembered the same way as Eddie Mabo was, and to campaign for change you believe is worth fighting for. A slave free future.

Further Information/ Contact: fiona.nicholson@slavefreetrade.org