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Australia targets big business with world's 2nd anti-slavery law

[LONDON] Big companies and public bodies in Australia will have to disclose how they tackle modern-day slavery in their operations under a law passed on Thursday that activists say is tougher on business than Britain's landmark 2015 anti-slavery legislation.

Australia's Modern Slavery Act requires businesses with a turnover of at least A$100 million (S$100.2 million) to publish an annual public statement outlining the risks of slavery in their supply chains, and actions they are taking to combat the threat.

The law was passed amid growing consumer and regulatory pressure upon companies to ensure their goods and services are untainted by the global slave trade, which is estimated by the United Nations to affect at least 40 million people worldwide.

"It's a significant step forward for modern slavery - it is the strongest legislation in the world," said Jenn Morris, chief executive of anti-slavery organisation the Walk Free Foundation.

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"What is key is that there are mandatory reporting requirements ... and the government is applying the same rules to themselves that they are asking businesses to follow," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in London.

Britain in 2015 became the first country to pass a modern slavery law, yet its government in July announced a review amid criticism that it is not being used effectively to jail traffickers, help victims, or drive firms to stop forced labour.

Compared to Britain, Australia's legislation is stricter on the information companies must provide, establishes a central database of entities required to comply and their statements, and compels public bodies to share their anti-slavery efforts.

Yet campaigners and trade unions criticised the omission of an independent anti-slavery commissioner - a role created with Britain's law - and the lack of financial penalties for companies who do not comply with the reporting requirement.

"As it stands this bill doesn't send a strong enough message to companies," Michele O'Neil, president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), said in a statement on Thursday. "We need fines to really be able to say they cannot get away with tolerating the presence of slavery as 'business as usual'."

The Australian government said the inclusion of civil penalties would be considered in a review of the legislation scheduled for three years after it comes into force.

"Business feedback shows market scrutiny as well as reputational risk and reward will drive compliance more effectively than punitive penalties," Senator Linda Reynolds of the ruling Liberal party said in parliament earlier this week.

Australia is home to an estimated 15,000 victims of modern slavery - from forced labour and sexual exploitation to domestic servitude - according to the Global Slavery Index by Walk Free.