Modern slavery conference, Melbourne

  • Speech, check against delivery

I begin by acknowledging the Wurundjeri People, the Traditional Owners of the land on which we are gathered. I pay respects to Elders, past, present and emerging.

I would also like to acknowledge those here today who have lived experience of modern slavery and who, despite having experienced the worst of humanity, continue to hold and inspire hope that we can do better. You are our inspiration today.

It is a little over a year since I became Foreign Minister of Australia in the Albanese Labor Government.

As a Labor Government, respect for human rights is in our DNA.

We were there for the birth of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which you will all know affirms that no one shall be held in slavery or servitude. The Chifley Labor Government was among the first to sign the Declaration and its representatives were integral in its drafting.

In particular, the rights of working people are in our DNA. The pursuit of these rights is Labor's origin story and of course these rights are captured in Article 23 of the Declaration - and they bear repeating:

  1. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
  2. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
  3. Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
  4. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

As a progressive government, we carry on this tradition. We are under no illusions about the world as it is, but we seek to shape it for the better.

We take the steps that can make a difference. We seek out the partners who can help us get traction. We know that meaningful change is hard and sometimes slower than we would like – and we know that to achieve that change we have to persist against problems that seem intractable.

Modern slavery is one of those problems. It is widespread and insidious. It is woven into our supply chains and our economy, exacerbated by disparities of power and opportunity in our global economy.

It is anathema to everything we stand for as a progressive Labor Government, which is why our election commitments included serious action at home and abroad to address modern slavery.

But this is not only a Labor value. This is an Australian value. Australians don't want to consume goods produced in supply chains that criminally exploit the world's most vulnerable people.

Which is why we welcomed the previous Government's decision to ratify the International Labour Organization's 2014 Forced Labour Protocol in March 2022.

With this scourge being so endemic, so intrinsic to the global economy, there is no way it can be eradicated unless wealthy, developed countries first take the lead by ceasing to consume goods made by forced labour.

We are making progress, but we are just at the beginning - and to really address modern slavery, we need to build momentum across sectors and countries.

So today I'd like to share my assessment of the world as it is – and the steps that we are taking to shape it for the better.

And to invite you to work with us, because unweaving modern slavery from the complex knit of global supply chains will take concerted effort across business, government and the community.

75 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed, too many of its inalienable rights are yet to be guaranteed – including its Article 4 prohibiting slavery.

It is estimated that there are nearly 50 million women, children and men working in slave-like conditions across the world, more than 29 million in our own region, and approximately 41,000 in Australia alone.

The world is also not on track to meet our shared global commitment – articulated in the Sustainable Development Goals – to eradicate forced labour and end modern slavery and human trafficking.

Conditions including political instability, conflict, pandemics and famine – all worsened by climate change – help modern slavery thrive.

These conditions exacerbate existing inequalities and condemn people, including children, to inhumane conditions.

The creep of authoritarianism is also a factor. We know that some countries use forced labour as a tool of oppression.

These are serious and deep-rooted challenges, and obviously no country can solve them alone.

But equally, we can't hope to marshal an effective international response without strong safeguards against modern slavery at home.

Our domestic work in this space is being led by Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, who will be speaking with you tomorrow.

But I do just want to emphasise how crucial his work is for all we hope to achieve.

We have to walk the walk. What we say matters, but what we do matters more. We need to have that moral credibility if we want to help catalyse strong global action.

That's why the centrepiece of our commitments on modern slavery has been to strengthen the Modern Slavery Act.

There's no doubt that the Modern Slavery Act has made an impact. It has elevated modern slavery to boardrooms around Australia.

It also has captured the attention of business overseas as our companies conduct due diligence on their supply chains and listen to their consumers.

But it can and must do more.

We must have a domestic framework to help ensure that supply chains that start in, traverse through, or end in Australia do not promote, condone, or financially support forced labour.

We must look clearly at the reality of conditions and not overlook programs of “re-education” or “technical training” that provide a facade for modern slavery.

I'm sure that all of you, whether representing business or civil society, would agree that to have this assurance there must be penalties for non-compliance.

We recently welcomed the review of the Modern Slavery Act led by Professor John McMillan AO and tabled in Parliament last month.

It is important that we learn from the first years of the Modern Slavery Act's operation, listen to the experiences of civil society and businesses - and consider how the Act can be strengthened.

And now, as you would expect given the complexity of these issues, the Government is carefully working across agencies and with stakeholders as we consider our response to the thirty recommendations in Professor McMillan's review.

In addition to our work reviewing the Act, in this year's Budget we announced the establishment of an Anti-Slavery Commissioner – a key election commitment.

But our domestic actions will not be enough if we cannot also help generate momentum for international action.

Our approach to modern slavery is rooted in the same principles that underpin our approach to human rights more broadly.

In a world where human rights abuses are distressingly prevalent, a world where some have an economic or political interest in exploiting the most vulnerable, we are motivated by principle and act with purpose. We do all that we can, in all the ways that we can.

First, we use our voice. Highlighting modern slavery includes naming the issue, which is why in February, the Albanese Government expanded the role of Ambassador for People Smuggling and Human Trafficking to have specific focus on modern slavery.

Today I announce the appointment of our new Ambassador to Counter Modern Slavery, People Smuggling and Human Trafficking, Lynn Bell – who is here today.

And thank outgoing Ambassador Lucienne Manton for her years of work on these issues.

Using our voice means speaking out on modern slavery at the Human Rights Council, the International Labour Organisation, and the UN General Assembly.

It means pushing back on uneven commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including those suggesting that some Goals should be deprioritised.

It means amplifying and supporting the vital voice of civil society. I would like to take this opportunity to commend the work of Walk Free, the International Labour Organisation and the International Organisation for Migration, for their efforts to analyse the data and figures of modern slavery.

The significance of their work cannot be overstated.

Their data underpins our understanding of the enormity of the problem – that since 2016, the number of people in modern slavery has increased by approximately 10 million.

Their work has shone light into some of the darkest recesses of humanity; disclosures that demand action.

The second way we strive for international action is through partnership. We seek partners with whom we can build common ground and common purpose.

Our Government is committed to fostering a strong and inclusive regional approach, underpinned by consultation and engagement.

Today I extend a warm welcome to representatives of the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Nepal, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

In addition to working in the multilateral fora I just mentioned, one of the key ways we seek partnership is through the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime, which I co-chair with my good friend and Indonesian counterpart, Retno Marsudi.

With its 45 member governments and 4 international organisations, it is a unique grouping for deepening and strengthening regional responses to these serious issues.

The outcomes of our most recent conference this year included the Adelaide Strategy for Cooperation, which sets out 8 areas to build cooperation through the region including increased law enforcement cooperation, stakeholder engagement, information sharing and public information campaigns and an increased focus on victim protection.

The Bali Process features a Government and Business Forum, which seeks to drive improvements in supply chain transparency, ethical recruitment and worker redress.

I would particularly like to acknowledge the work of Forum Business Co-Chair Andrew Forrest and Garibaldi Thohir who have underscored that responsible businesses don't want to fund modern slavery.

Australia's regional engagement on modern slavery is also underpinned by two major programs, the ASEAN-Australia Counter Trafficking Program, and TRIANGLE in ASEAN.

These programs are training thousands of government officials engaged in counter-trafficking in persons, and providing legal and social support services to victims of trafficking.

The third way we help support human rights globally is by offering support where it counts. The Australian Government has increased our investments to combat modern slavery. This includes up to $24 million of Official Development Assistance over the past financial year.

This support means we are investing to strengthen protections against forced labour in Timor-Leste, Cambodia and Bangladesh; protect migrant workers in Thailand and South Asia; raise awareness of and combat child marriage and child labour in Afghanistan and across multiple African states; and to counter human trafficking in Nepal. We are also investing $3 million over three years to deliver human trafficking research and capacity-building in the Pacific.

Last year during my bilateral visit to Thailand, I announced Australia's support for Thailand's new Centre of Excellence for Countering Trafficking in Persons.

It will be the first facility in Southeast Asia with a dedicated focus on human trafficking.

And today I can announce that the Albanese Government is committing $1 million to the United Nations to support the voluntary trust fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery and the trust fund on Victims of Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.

This will help provide critical support to those caught in these criminal networks. It will help to fund rehabilitation for survivors, help them recover, find their feet and get the support they need to start a new life.

Just before speaking today, I had the privilege of meeting Rani Hong.

She needs no introduction for this audience. A survivor of modern slavery who has found a way to make a meaningful difference through her De-Risking software - and powerful public voice.

I would like to acknowledge her now, along with all the other survivors in the room. Thank you for your courage in fighting to end these inhumane acts in all their forms, and for sharing your stories and perspective. You are why we are here.

I hope all of us here use this Conference as an opportunity – whether we represent business, civil society, multilateral organisations, academia, or government…

…An opportunity to deepen partnerships, forge new commitments, and work together to end the terrible crimes that constitute modern slavery.

We must act to ensure people walk free everywhere. In Afghanistan and Russia, in Xinjiang and Tibet, in North Korea and Eritrea. Here in the Indo-Pacific.

There are few more inspired documents ever written than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Reading it today stirs us to awe: that in the wake of the most catastrophic conflict in human history, our predecessors could aspire to such higher ground. But we come down with a thud realising how far we have to go to achieve the worthy standard they set.

Today we fall well short of its primary article: that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and human rights.

And yet that is not only the standard we have signed up to, it is the minimum we should expect of ourselves as part of the human family.

So I thank you for being here, for your dedication to eradicating modern slavery, and for being willing to work together with us as we seek to make the Declaration less a statement of aspiration, and more a statement of fact.

Thank you.

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