A law aimed at ending Australia’s participation in international slave labour has passed through the Senate.
The Customs Amendment (Banning Goods Produced By Forced Labour) Bill 2021 – proposed by independent senator Rex Patrick – seeks to ban the import of products that are produced in whole or part by forced labour.
“Slave labour is abhorrent. It’s human cost is horrendous and it leaves Australian businesses competing against imports on unfair terms,” Senator Patrick told the Senate on Monday.
Senator Patrick pointed to the Chinese Communist Party as one of the main perpetrators of the practice.
“Massive and systematic oppression of the Uighur people by the Chinese communist regimen is undeniable, including the exploitation of the chained Uighurs as a captive labour force,” he said.
“Uighur forced labour plays a key role in Xinjiang’s massive cotton production and extends across an array of Chinese industries, including the supply chains of global brands.”
Forced labour is any work in which people are employed against their will with the threat of destitution, imprisonment, violence, death, or other forms of extreme hardship.
“Australia is to be true to the democratic values we hold,” Senator Patrick said.
“We need to leave the Chinese government no doubt that this is unconscionable and unacceptable.”
But the Customs Amendment (Banning Goods Produced By Forced Labour) Bill 2021 covers a far greater scope than just the human rights abuses occurring in China.
If the bill passes though the House of Representatives, goods from any country that are found to have been produced by forced labour will be subject to the same penalties that apply to the importation of other prohibited items, including pornography, firearms and other weapons, ammunition and counterfeit goods.
According to Senator Patrick, global brands Apple, Amazon and H&M have been benefiting from the forced labour of Uighurs in China.
The Coalition opposed Senator Patrick’s bill in the Senate, stating that it needed to be “deferred” until further analysis had been done by the government.
“There does need to be a very deep analysis of every single clause to ensure that they are not any unforeseen consequences or circumstances,” Liberal senator Eric Abetz said.
But Senator Patrick insisted action needed to be taken now, stating that a two to three-year wait through gradual legislative and administrative action was “unacceptable”.
“This action cannot be further delayed … we need to send a very clear political signal to Beijing and to the numerous international brands that have been happy to turn a blind eye to China‘s massive exploitation of forced labour,” he said.
“We need to send that signal right now – before the Beijing Winter Olympics next February – when the Chinese Communist Party intend to bask in a massive international propaganda event.”
Despite the Coalition’s opposition to Senator Patrick’s bill, support from the Labor Party and other crossbenchers, including the Greens and One Nation, gave the bill the majority vote it needed to pass.
“We often speak of slavery in the past tense … yet it is the reality for many millions of people around the world,” Labor senator Murray Watt said.
Senator Watt told the Senate that an estimated 25 million people worldwide were being made to perform forced labour.
“(Labor) welcomes this private senator’s bill today because we recognise that more must be done to combat fraud and slavery, and we appreciate how present pervasive the problem has become,” he said.
Senator Patrick applauded the Senate’s vote, stating in a media release that it was an “important step forward in the international efforts to combat modern slavery”.
The bill will be need to be approved by the House of Representatives in the coming months before it can be become official Australian law.