Australia: Food for thought: the Modern Slavery Act impacts on fresh food retail, wholesale and agriculture industries

Last Updated: 21 October 2017
Article by Abigail McGregor and Greg Vickery


The Australian food retail, wholesale and agriculture industries are no strangers to reports of poor treatment of migrant workers on Australian farms, often involving labour hire companies.1Due to the nature of the work involved in the production, processing, packaging and transport of food and produce, these supply chains have a high risk of modern slavery.2

While the major supermarkets already have anti-slavery programs in place, other businesses operating in the food and agriculture industries, including producers, distributors, packers, exporters and caterers, may not be fully prepared for the introduction of a new corporate reporting requirement.

A taste of modern slavery risk...

  • Engagement of labour hire contractors who recruit backpackers and seasonal workers for fruit and vegetable picking on farms, without express obligations concerning ethical recruitment and retention of labourers.3
  • Poor conditions, passport retention and bonded labour in food processing.4
  • Procurement of high risk foods across maritime borders, particularly from emerging economies, such as crustacea, corn, palm oil, poultry, rice, sesame, wheat, sugarcane, cattle, beans, coffee and cocoa beans, seafood, nuts and tea, including forced labour risks involved in shipping, and transport of these products.5

On 16 August 2017, the Minister for Justice Michael Keenan announced that the Federal Government proposes to introduce legislation to require large businesses to report annually on their actions to address modern slavery. This announcement reinforces Australia's commitment to having one of the strongest responses to modern slavery in the world. We have been actively participating in the Attorney-General's Department national consultation process to refine the Government's proposed Modern Slavery in Supply Chains Reporting model.

It is currently proposed that businesses with revenue of AU$100m+ will be required to report annually on their efforts to identify and stop modern slavery in their operations and supply chains. There is no doubt that many businesses in the food retail, wholesale and agriculture industries will face intense public scrutiny, especially given the high risk of modern slavery in the sector.

In this update, we look at modern slavery risks in the food and agriculture sectors, the likely implications of a new reporting requirement for Australian businesses that operate in that sector and what they can do to prepare.

What is modern slavery?

At its broadest, the term 'modern slavery' incorporates any situations of exploitation where a person cannot refuse or leave work because of threats, violence, coercion, abuse of power or deception. It includes slavery, servitude, forced labour, debt bondage, and deceptive recruiting for labour or services.

The Australian Government proposes that for the purpose of the reporting requirement, modern slavery will be defined to incorporate conduct that would constitute a relevant offence under existing human trafficking, slavery and slavery-like offence provisions set out in divisions 270 and 271 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code. However, the exact scope of "Modern Slavery" is the subject of consultation and it remains unclear whether the definition of Modern Slavery will go beyond the Criminal Code offences.


Recent Industry Examples

  • Enslavement on Thai fishing vessels to assist in producing seafood sold across the world, including to Australia.6
  • Immigrant labourers on farms being routinely abused.7
  • Employers withholding wages or forcing staff to work at rates lower than those previously agreed.
  • Labour agents confiscating the passports of migrant workers, often with little grasp of English, forcing them to work and live in squalid conditions.
  • Recruitment fees payable by employees from future wages.8

How will a Modern Slavery Act affect food and agriculture businesses?

Given the bipartisan support for a Modern Slavery Act, Australia is likely to have a reporting requirement relating to modern slavery that could be in place as early as 2018. The likelihood is that the new Australian regime will be similar in many respects to the UK regime.

The current proposal would require businesses to address the following matters in their statements:

  1. the entity's structure, its operations and its supply chains;
  2. the modern slavery risks present in the entity's operations and supply chains;
  3. the entity's policies and processes to address modern slavery in its operations and supply chains and their effectiveness (such as codes of conduct, supplier contract terms and training for staff); and
  4. the entity's due diligence processes relating to modern slavery in its operations and supply chains and their effectiveness.

The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, which is responsible for the ongoing Inquiry into establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia, has given its in principle support for the Australian Government to publish a list of businesses obliged to report and a list of businesses that fail to report. A publicly accessible central repository for published statements is also proposed.

Australian businesses ought to expect that there will be significant public criticism of those businesses that do not comply with their reporting obligations and that statements, once published, will be subject to intense public scrutiny, as has been the case in the UK.

The existence of a central repository of statements will facilitate the monitoring and review of statements. It is also likely to assist businesses, consumers and other stakeholders to understand the steps being taken by businesses to eradicate modern slavery in their operations and supply chains and take more effective steps to address the underlying issues.

What is the industry doing already?

As highlighted above, the food and agriculture industries are no strangers to the risk of modern slavery. While the Federal Government and regulators have taken action in investigating allegations of abuse of vulnerable migrant workers on farms, industry participants have taken some steps towards addressing these risks, with varying results, including:

  • Adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights Reporting Framework and membership to the UN Global Compact.
  • Establishing a national labour hire certification scheme with training programs for employers in horticulture and pack houses eg the Fair Farms Initiative.
  • Sourcing products that come with ethical certification eg UTZ certification, and Fair Trade.
  • Participation and membership of data-sharing organisations to audit suppliers such as the Suppliers Ethical Data Exchange.

In the meantime, civil society groups and other organisations have created their own public databases to rate businesses' compliance with human rights and sustainability standards, including:

  • Oxfam's Behind the Brands Campaign.
  • KnowtheChain's benchmark on food and beverage companies.
  • Corporate Human Rights Benchmark which assesses 98 of the largest publicly traded companies in the world on 100 human rights indicators.
  • Apps like "Shop Ethical!" which provide information on the environmental and social record of companies behind common Australian supermarket brands.
  • Dow Jones Sustainability Index – a globally recognised independent benchmark that measures the performance of the world's largest 2500 companies.

Unfavourable listings in such databases and indices can have negative reputational effects.

What can food and agriculture businesses do to prepare?

In light of the high risk of modern slavery occurring in food and agriculture businesses and supply chains, many companies are already in the process of reviewing their operations and supply chains and implementing measures to identify and address incidents of modern slavery.

Those businesses that haven't already done so should consider taking the following steps:

  1. Mapping the organisation's structure, businesses and supply chains.
  2. Formulating policies in relation to modern slavery – this will involve collating current policies, identifying gaps, adapting existing policies and formulating new policies, as needed.
  3. Carrying out a risk assessment – identifying those parts of the business operations and supply chains where there is a risk of modern slavery taking place.
  4. Assessing and managing identified risks – this may include carrying out further due diligence in the entity's operations and supply chains and reviewing and adapting contract terms and codes of conduct with suppliers.
  5. Considering and establishing processes and KPIs to monitor the effectiveness of the steps taken to ensure that modern slavery is not taking place in the business or supply chains.
  6. Carrying out remedial steps where modern slavery is identified.
  7. Developing training for staff on modern slavery risks and impacts.

Businesses operating in the food and agriculture industries need to be particularly alive to the risk of slavery occurring deep in their supply chains, which are often long and complex. Well publicised incidents mean that businesses operating in these sectors are likely to be treated as being "on notice" of these risks and the government, media and public will closely monitor the steps they are taking to operate sustainably and ethically.

By undertaking these steps, businesses will be well placed to respond effectively to new regulations and show that they are committed to eradicating modern slavery, in Australia and overseas, and taking concrete steps to achieve that outcome. For more detail on what business can do now, see our article on human rights due diligence in supply chains


1 Parliament of Victoria, Economic Development Committee, Inquiry into Labour Hire Employment in Victoria, Interim Report December 2004 and Final Report, June 2005, and Victorian Government Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport & Resources Victorian Inquiry into the Labour Hire Industry and Insecure Work: Final Report 31 August 2016; Parliament of Australia, Senate Education and Employment References Committee, A National Disgrace: The Exploitation of Temporary Work Visa Holders (17 March 2016); Parliament of Australia, House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Workplace Relations and Workforce Participation Committee, Making it work: Inquiry into independent contracting and labour hire arrangements (Canberra, August 2005); Australian Government, Fair Work Ombudsman, A report on the Fair Work Ombudsman's Inquiry into the labour procurement arrangements of the Baiada Group in New South Wales June 2015.

2 Findings of the Trafficking in Persons Report suggest that while traditionally the majority of human trafficking and slavery investigated in Australia have related to women subjected to sexual exploitation, there has been an increase in the number of referrals and investigations relating to other forms of labour exploitation especially in the agriculture, construction, hospitality and domestic services industry – and is now comparable with those subjected to sexual exploitation. See Australian Government "Trafficking in persons: the Australian Government Response 1 July 2015 – 30 June 2016" The Eighth Report of the Interdepartmental Committee on human trafficking and slavery (2016) p 23

3 Kallee Buchanan "Backpacker farm labour 'modern day slavery'" 19 July 2017, AM, ABC Radio, recording available online:

4 Caro Meldrum-Hanna and Ali Russell "Slaving Away" ABC Four Corners (6 May 2015)

5 See further Business & Human Rights Resource Centre An introduction and commentary to the 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and their implementation in the maritime environment 2016 available online:


7 Caro Meldrum-Hanna and Ali Russell "Slaving Away" ABC Four Corners (6 May 2015)

8 Fair Work Ombudsman, "Growers, hostels, labour-hire contractors cautioned over backpacker, seasonal worker entitlements" 5 January 2015

To print this article, all you need is to be registered on

Click to Login as an existing user or Register so you can print this article.

Abigail McGregor
Some comments from our readers…
“The articles are extremely timely and highly applicable”
“I often find critical information not available elsewhere”
“As in-house counsel, Mondaq’s service is of great value”

Related Video
Up-coming Events Search
Font Size:
Mondaq on Twitter
Register for Access and our Free Biweekly Alert for
This service is completely free. Access 250,000 archived articles from 100+ countries and get a personalised email twice a week covering developments (and yes, our lawyers like to think you’ve read our Disclaimer).
Email Address
Company Name
Confirm Password
Mondaq Topics -- Select your Interests
 Law Performance
 Law Practice
 Media & IT
 Real Estate
 Wealth Mgt
Asia Pacific
European Union
Latin America
Middle East
United States
Worldwide Updates
Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:
  • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
  • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
  • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.
  • Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.
    If you do not want us to provide your name and email address you may opt out by clicking here
    If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of products and services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here

    Terms & Conditions and Privacy Statement (the Website) is owned and managed by Mondaq Ltd and as a user you are granted a non-exclusive, revocable license to access the Website under its terms and conditions of use. Your use of the Website constitutes your agreement to the following terms and conditions of use. Mondaq Ltd may terminate your use of the Website if you are in breach of these terms and conditions or if Mondaq Ltd decides to terminate your license of use for whatever reason.

    Use of

    You may use the Website but are required to register as a user if you wish to read the full text of the content and articles available (the Content). You may not modify, publish, transmit, transfer or sell, reproduce, create derivative works from, distribute, perform, link, display, or in any way exploit any of the Content, in whole or in part, except as expressly permitted in these terms & conditions or with the prior written consent of Mondaq Ltd. You may not use electronic or other means to extract details or information about’s content, users or contributors in order to offer them any services or products which compete directly or indirectly with Mondaq Ltd’s services and products.


    Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers make no representations about the suitability of the information contained in the documents and related graphics published on this server for any purpose. All such documents and related graphics are provided "as is" without warranty of any kind. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers hereby disclaim all warranties and conditions with regard to this information, including all implied warranties and conditions of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers be liable for any special, indirect or consequential damages or any damages whatsoever resulting from loss of use, data or profits, whether in an action of contract, negligence or other tortious action, arising out of or in connection with the use or performance of information available from this server.

    The documents and related graphics published on this server could include technical inaccuracies or typographical errors. Changes are periodically added to the information herein. Mondaq Ltd and/or its respective suppliers may make improvements and/or changes in the product(s) and/or the program(s) described herein at any time.


    Mondaq Ltd requires you to register and provide information that personally identifies you, including what sort of information you are interested in, for three primary purposes:

    • To allow you to personalize the Mondaq websites you are visiting.
    • To enable features such as password reminder, newsletter alerts, email a colleague, and linking from Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to your website.
    • To produce demographic feedback for our information providers who provide information free for your use.

    Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) do not sell or provide your details to third parties other than information providers. The reason we provide our information providers with this information is so that they can measure the response their articles are receiving and provide you with information about their products and services.

    Information Collection and Use

    We require site users to register with Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) to view the free information on the site. We also collect information from our users at several different points on the websites: this is so that we can customise the sites according to individual usage, provide 'session-aware' functionality, and ensure that content is acquired and developed appropriately. This gives us an overall picture of our user profiles, which in turn shows to our Editorial Contributors the type of person they are reaching by posting articles on Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) – meaning more free content for registered users.

    We are only able to provide the material on the Mondaq (and its affiliate sites) site free to site visitors because we can pass on information about the pages that users are viewing and the personal information users provide to us (e.g. email addresses) to reputable contributing firms such as law firms who author those pages. We do not sell or rent information to anyone else other than the authors of those pages, who may change from time to time. Should you wish us not to disclose your details to any of these parties, please tick the box above or tick the box marked "Opt out of Registration Information Disclosure" on the Your Profile page. We and our author organisations may only contact you via email or other means if you allow us to do so. Users can opt out of contact when they register on the site, or send an email to with “no disclosure” in the subject heading

    Mondaq News Alerts

    In order to receive Mondaq News Alerts, users have to complete a separate registration form. This is a personalised service where users choose regions and topics of interest and we send it only to those users who have requested it. Users can stop receiving these Alerts by going to the Mondaq News Alerts page and deselecting all interest areas. In the same way users can amend their personal preferences to add or remove subject areas.


    A cookie is a small text file written to a user’s hard drive that contains an identifying user number. The cookies do not contain any personal information about users. We use the cookie so users do not have to log in every time they use the service and the cookie will automatically expire if you do not visit the Mondaq website (or its affiliate sites) for 12 months. We also use the cookie to personalise a user's experience of the site (for example to show information specific to a user's region). As the Mondaq sites are fully personalised and cookies are essential to its core technology the site will function unpredictably with browsers that do not support cookies - or where cookies are disabled (in these circumstances we advise you to attempt to locate the information you require elsewhere on the web). However if you are concerned about the presence of a Mondaq cookie on your machine you can also choose to expire the cookie immediately (remove it) by selecting the 'Log Off' menu option as the last thing you do when you use the site.

    Some of our business partners may use cookies on our site (for example, advertisers). However, we have no access to or control over these cookies and we are not aware of any at present that do so.

    Log Files

    We use IP addresses to analyse trends, administer the site, track movement, and gather broad demographic information for aggregate use. IP addresses are not linked to personally identifiable information.


    This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that Mondaq (or its affiliate sites) are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of these third party sites. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this Web site.

    Surveys & Contests

    From time-to-time our site requests information from users via surveys or contests. Participation in these surveys or contests is completely voluntary and the user therefore has a choice whether or not to disclose any information requested. Information requested may include contact information (such as name and delivery address), and demographic information (such as postcode, age level). Contact information will be used to notify the winners and award prizes. Survey information will be used for purposes of monitoring or improving the functionality of the site.


    If a user elects to use our referral service for informing a friend about our site, we ask them for the friend’s name and email address. Mondaq stores this information and may contact the friend to invite them to register with Mondaq, but they will not be contacted more than once. The friend may contact Mondaq to request the removal of this information from our database.


    From time to time Mondaq may send you emails promoting Mondaq services including new services. You may opt out of receiving such emails by clicking below.

    *** If you do not wish to receive any future announcements of services offered by Mondaq you may opt out by clicking here .


    This website takes every reasonable precaution to protect our users’ information. When users submit sensitive information via the website, your information is protected using firewalls and other security technology. If you have any questions about the security at our website, you can send an email to

    Correcting/Updating Personal Information

    If a user’s personally identifiable information changes (such as postcode), or if a user no longer desires our service, we will endeavour to provide a way to correct, update or remove that user’s personal data provided to us. This can usually be done at the “Your Profile” page or by sending an email to

    Notification of Changes

    If we decide to change our Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy, we will post those changes on our site so our users are always aware of what information we collect, how we use it, and under what circumstances, if any, we disclose it. If at any point we decide to use personally identifiable information in a manner different from that stated at the time it was collected, we will notify users by way of an email. Users will have a choice as to whether or not we use their information in this different manner. We will use information in accordance with the privacy policy under which the information was collected.

    How to contact Mondaq

    You can contact us with comments or queries at

    If for some reason you believe Mondaq Ltd. has not adhered to these principles, please notify us by e-mail at and we will use commercially reasonable efforts to determine and correct the problem promptly.

    By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions