Kuala Lumpur — A multi-million-dollar, anti-trafficking strategy between Australia and Southeast Asian nations will look at new ways to help businesses root out slavery in their supply chains, a senior foreign ministry official said on Thursday.

Last week, Australia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) launched a 10-year, counter-trafficking initiative backed by A$80m ($54m) of funding.

“It will find new ways to engage with the private sector and help relevant Asean governments engage with their private sectors to  ... address the supply chain aspects of the battle against slavery,” said Bryce Hutchesson, Australia’s ambassador for people smuggling and human trafficking.

“[It’s] continuing with the strong work done at the criminal justice end of the spectrum but adding a newer element, which is to foster, in the Asean region, partnerships between governments and business to help tackle the supply chain.”

About 40-million people worldwide are living as slaves, according to Australian rights group the Walk Free foundation and the UN International Labor Organisation (ILO).

Australia is home to an estimated 15,000 victims of modern slavery, according to Walk Free’s Global Slavery Index by .

Human trafficking and worker exploitation are most common in agriculture, construction and the sex industries, with victims largely from China, Vietnam, India and Malaysia, according to the country’s border force.

“Unless you’re dealing with the economics aspect as well, then you’ve got a very incomplete response,” Hutchesson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.

Hutchesson was appointed in 2019 to lead Australia’s diplomatic efforts on people-trafficking, smuggling and modern slavery, and hopes to build awareness and establish best-practice norms through partnerships with countries or regions.

The new Asean initiative will also provide police training in financial investigations, professional development for judges, and promote child-friendly courtrooms.

Race to the top

Earlier this year, Australia introduced the world’s second anti-slavery law which requires companies with a turnover of $100m  or more to publish annual statements outlining the risk of slavery in supply chains and actions to address it.

Australian companies that have to comply with the Modern Slavery Act will submit their inaugural reports by the middle of 2020, said Hutchesson, with the first batch due to arrive in late 2019 and all made available to the public.

Australian firms affected by the new law should be having “serious conversations” with companies in Asia or elsewhere so they are satisfied all is being done to identify risks and take steps to reduce those risks, he added.

“Once you start talking about supply chains in big Australian companies, inevitably you go offshore,” said Hutchesson, who began his new role in April and was previously Australia’s high commissioner to Sri Lanka.

Some human rights groups and trade unions have voiced concerns that a lack of financial penalties for companies who flout Australia’s anti-slavery law is a missed opportunity. But Hutchesson said it was important that Australian companies be allowed time without penalties to get up to speed with the new requirements and meet their reporting obligations.

Australia’s international and domestic strategy to combat human trafficking and slavery would also soon be refreshed and updated, Hutchesson said, without giving specific details. “We’re not saying we’ve got all the answers, either at home or abroad, but we do see ourselves as a bit of a leader and the government’s committed to that so we’ll keep doing our bit.”

Thomson Reuters Foundation

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.