Australian governments could be procuring products made using slave labour, according to lobby group Anti-Slavery Australia (ASA).
In a submission to a New South Wales (NSW) Parliamentary inquiry into human trafficking, ASA said there is “considerable potential” that government agencies in Australia are buying products and services with links to human trafficking or exploitation because ethical procurement guidelines are not up to scratch.
Jennifer Burn, director of ASA, said there was “complete absence of any real scrutiny” of supply chains at either a commonwealth or state government level.
In NSW, potential government suppliers are asked whether they conform to relevant legislation, including child labour. Agencies are also required to ensure procurement is “fair, ethical, transparent and incorporates probity”.
Other state governments have similar policies. In Victoria, departments are required to comply with a set of guidelines, which cover accountability and integrity.
However, Burn said ethical procurement is not mentioned in the guidelines and while a supplier code of conduct includes labour law and human rights standards, it does not mention slavery.
Meanwhile, the inquiry into modern slavery is due to report to the NSW government this week and is likely to include a recommendation relating to the introduction of an anti-slavery commissioner, according to ASA.
The NSW opposition Labor party has pledged to introduce a commissioner regardless of the outcome of the inquiry.
Paul Lynch, shadow attorney general, said Labor wanted to “slavery-proof” NSW by specifically including anti-slavery provisions in procurement guidelines.
He said under the policy proposed by the party’s shadow cabinet, the commissioner would be able to collect and request data, as well as inquire into the implementation of procurement guidelines. The commissioner would also be able to advocate, monitor and assess the effectiveness of government policies.
Lynch added that more was needed than “a broad ethical statement” and the optimum model would give the anti-slavery commissioner statutory powers and have them report independently to Parliament.
“At one level the problem is that we don’t know whether there are any question marks over procurement because no one has asked the question,” he said.
“No one has investigated and no one is looking. We give our departments broad ethical obligations but there is nothing in particular about trafficking and slavery.”
The NSW inquiry is taking place at the same time as a federal committee considers whether to introduce a modern slavery act similar to the one introduced in the UK in 2015.
The UK act requires businesses with a turnover of £36m or more to file an online report disclosing what actions they are taking to eliminate slavery and trafficking from their supply chains and businesses.
However, Burn said there were “glaring deficiencies” in the UK scheme.
“It’s called a transparency and reporting scheme but really it’s just a reporting mechanism,” she said.
“In the UK they have to do almost nothing—they just say what they’re doing to address risk. The Australian model has expanded that but there are questions on what kind of oversight there will be.”