Slavery inquiry mulls penalty for business

Matt Coughlan

Supermarket giant Woolworths has rejected calls from human rights groups to penalise Australian businesses who don't show how they are stamping out slavery in supply chains.

A Senate inquiry is putting the blowtorch on the federal government's draft laws, which will make companies report actions taken to stop modern slavery being connected to their business.

Oxfam is pushing for the commonwealth regime to mirror NSW, where companies with turnover of $50 million or more can be penalised more than $1 million for giving false or misleading information.

But Woolworths Group responsible sourcing manager Laura McManus said penalties for non-reporting or providing inadequate information wouldn't promote transparency in the private sector.

"Penalties would not necessarily drive the right disclosure and change in business culture that is needed to shift the dial on tackling slavery," Ms McManus told the hearing in Sydney on Thursday.

The company would be open to discussing penalties when the slavery regime is reviewed three years after it becomes law.

Australian Retailers Association policy director Heath Michael believes naming and shaming companies with slave labour in their supply chain will stop businesses from doing the wrong thing.

"If there's been one consistent theme from every business and retailer in this space, it's been no penalties," Mr Michael said.

"Brand harm alone is punishment enough."

Former senator Skye Kakoschke-Moore, who is now a special advisor with International Justice Mission Australia, backed a penalties regime phased in over time.

"Just the naming and shaming of a company we don't think will be an effective penalty," Ms Kakoschke-Moore said.

The Human Rights Law Centre's Keren Adams wants the government to urgently strengthen the bill to include penalties.

"A mandatory reporting scheme is not mandatory if there are no consequences for companies that fail to comply," Ms Adams said.

"Without financial penalties - and with no independent commissioner to help enforce them - the new laws will lack the teeth to make sure the worst offenders lift their game."