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Can the Modern Slavery Act review drive meaningful change?

5 October 2023
The review makes 30 recommendations to reform the legislation
A panel event on the Modern Slavery Act Review will bring together experts from government, academia and civil society to explore whether a stronger Act will drive meaningful change.

Earlier this year, the Australian Government tabled a report in Parliament on the first review of Australia’s Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth). The Review makes 30 recommendations to reform the legislation that, if adopted, would position Australia as a global leader in addressing modern slavery. 

On Friday 13 October, the University of Sydney Law School and the University's Modern Slavery Unit are hosting a panel event on the Modern Slavery Act review, bringing together experts from government, academia and civil society to explore whether a stronger Act will drive the meaningful change needed to end modern slavery. 

The event will include a keynote address from Professor John McMillan AO, the author of the Modern Slavery Act review, as well as opening remarks from the newly appointed Australian Ambassador to Counter Modern Slavery, People Smuggling and Human Trafficking, Ms Lynn Bell.

Why should you attend?

“Come along and learn more about the unique role of universities in combatting modern slavery – from strengthening the evidence base through much needed-data and undertaking due diligence on new research partners, to supporting students at risk of modern slavery and engaging with our suppliers to identify risks deep within our supply chains,” said Esty Marcu, Director of the Modern Slavery Unit at the University of Sydney.

Earlier this year the University published our third Modern Slavery Statement (pdf, 4.4MB), part of our obligations under the Modern Slavery Act. The statement highlights the University-wide collaborative effort it takes to embed human rights due diligence into our activities, supply chain, partnerships and investments. 

This work goes beyond legal compliance or reputational risk. It is grounded in the core human rights many of us enjoy – freedom, agency, dignity – but which some are denied and goes to the heart of what we stand for as an institution: leadership for good. 

What are the implications of a stronger Modern Slavery Act for the University?

The review makes several recommendations that have implications for the higher education sector. The most significant is the introduction of an obligation on entities to undertake due diligence, shifting the focus from reporting to action. 

The Government has already signalled its support for this recommendation. If adopted, the obligation would require entities to not just identify and address risks but demonstrate the impact of their actions. The recommendation reflects a growing international movement towards due diligence as the core strategy in addressing human rights violations. 

The review emphasises that due diligence should be context-specific. Referencing the University’s own submission to the review, the report calls out the university sector as one that has unique risks and would benefit from a more tailored approach.

Will a stronger Modern Slavery Act offer protections for students, who are at greater risk of modern slavery?

Our engagement with students and our partners that work at the coalface of modern slavery shows that young people are at greater risk of modern slavery – particularly forced marriage and exploitative working conditions – driven by cost-of-living pressures and lack of awareness about their rights.

“Universities are well placed to equip students with an understanding of their rights and link them up with tailored support services,” said Professor Jennifer Burn AM, lawyer and director of Anti-Slavery Australia, the only specialist centre providing free legal representation to people experiencing modern slavery, and one of the panellists at the event.

“We’ve been working in partnership with the University of Sydney to develop an anti-slavery awareness module for students. Since the module launched in 2020, close to 9000 students have voluntarily completed it, which demonstrates the keen interest from students to understand and act on this pressing human rights challenge.” 

What role does the University have in strengthening policy and legislation to tackle modern slavery?

Ending modern slavery is going to require us to think differently, to challenge disciplinary boundaries and to bring together diverse skillsets in innovative ways – what better place than a university?

From astrophysicists developing an award-winning supply chain footprint tool to help business identify modern slavery hotspots, to supporting the inaugural NSW Anti-slavery Commissioner develop his strategic plan, the University is well placed to offer applied research solutions to address complex human rights challenges.

Associate Professor Anna Boucher, who will also be speaking at the event, sees an opportunity for universities to play a key role in advising policy makers on best practice in this field.

"Exploitation is best tackled by considering the interrelationship between modern slavery, immigration and employment law. The proposed strengthening of the Modern Slavery Act will support developments towards understanding the interrelationships of different policy domains on the experiences of those entrapped in modern-slavery-like conditions,” said Associate Professor Boucher, Chair of Discipline, Government and International Relations in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University. 

Associate Professor Boucher regularly advises governments and international organisations, including the International Labour Organisation, United Nations and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), on migrant worker rights and labour exploitation. She stands on the advisory panel to the NSW Anti-slavery Commissioner.

Register to attend the event on Friday 13 October at 1pm to hear from Professor Burn, Associate Professor Boucher and other expert speakers.

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