23 August 2021

Private Senators’ Bill

[by video link] I rise to speak on the Customs Amendment (Banning Goods Produced By Forced Labour) Bill 2021, and in doing so I wish to thank Senator Patrick for the consideration he has given to the feedback provided by Labor senators and others through the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Legislation Committee in its inquiry into the previous iteration of this bill. Certainly, the narrow focus of the Customs Amendment (Banning Goods Produced By Uyghur Forced Labour) Bill 2020 responded to a very real and concerning matter—namely, the servitude forced on the Uighur people and others by the Communist Party of China. Nonetheless, as abhorrent as that example is, sadly, the Uighurs are not the only people throughout the world subject to such practices by oppressive governments, and it is right that any legislation which comes from this parliament should address this as well.

This new bill implements the committee’s recommendation by amending the Customs Act to impose an absolute ban on the importation of goods produced in whole or in part by forced labour. It is general in nature and does not specify any geographic origin for its application. Should this bill become law—as I hope it will, along with the amendments that will be proposed by Senator Keneally—it will ensure that goods which are produced by those who are subject to servitude will be subject to penalties akin to those applied to the importation of other goods designated as prohibited imports under the Customs Act.

As a regional power, Australia has an important role to play in combating the scourge of modern slavery globally but also, most particularly, in our region, the Asia-Pacific. Labor has always been committed to showing leadership on this issue, which is why we on this side campaigned for an Australian modern slavery act; moved amendments to the Modern Slavery Bill in 2018 to improve its effectiveness and introduce penalties for noncompliance; and sought to establish an independent antislavery commissioner. Unfortunately, those on the treasury bench have shirked our nation’s responsibility on this very important issue. The government have not supported our amendments and, as the facts on the conditions facing the Uighur people and others throughout the world have become known, they have failed to act.

As mentioned by Senator Watt, it was estimated by the Global Slavery Index in 2018 that there were approximately 40 million people living in modern slavery conditions, with over half of these being in forced labour specifically. We would never accept workers in our country being subject to such conditions in the manufacturing of Australian goods, and thankfully, with the presence of strong unions, we can safeguard against such conditions developing. It is why I support the need for a free and democratic trade union movement not just here in Australia but right around the world.

However, whilst we may set this standard for ourselves, it is important that we apply the same standard to those goods which, whilst produced abroad, nonetheless make their way into many Australian homes and businesses. No Australian home should have whitegoods that have been made by forced labour. No Australian business should be supplied by manufacturers who engage in forced labour practices. And for that matter, no state government of this country should continue, simply because it would cost too much to find another contractor, with the purchase of train parts from Chinese suppliers that are linked to the exploited Uighur workers.

There is no denying that it can sometimes be difficult to call out the behaviour of others. To do so often requires great courage and, for some who lack this courage, the task may appear too great. When former Prime Minister Bob Hawke called out the massacre of democracy protesters by the Communist Party of China in Tiananmen Square and offered sanctuary to Chinese visa holders in Australia, this took courage. Australia should never be a country that lacks courage. We have a very proud history of leadership. We should be true to this legacy in how we govern our actions today.

The conditions of Uighur people in Xinjiang province, in the People’s Republic of China, are unacceptable.

Under the leadership of the Communist Party, Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other Muslim groups are subjected to extensive state-sponsored repression and human rights abuses, including mass arbitrary detention, rape, sterilisation, political indoctrination, cultural destruction and mass surveillance. This is not a contention, this is not an assertion; this is a simple fact.

A 2020 report released by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that there were 27 factories in nine Chinese provinces that had Uighur labour forcibly transferred from Xinjiang since 2017. And, according to the ASPI, these factories form part of the supply chains of 82 well-known global brands in the technology, clothing and automotive sectors. As Dr Michael Clarke, an associate professor at the Australian National University focused on the history and politics of Xinjiang, told a committee inquiry into an earlier iteration of this bill, Xinjiang is the site of the largest mass-repressing of an ethnic and/or religious minority in the world today.

I’m pleased to see that international condemnation of this behaviour has been growing. In July 2020 the United Kingdom delivered a cross-regional statement on Hong Kong and Xinjiang on behalf of 27 countries that, among others, mattered. It called for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to be allowed meaningful access to Xinjiang to assess the circumstances of the Uighur people. In October 2020, at the United Nations committee on social, humanitarian and cultural issues, Germany delivered a statement on behalf of 39 countries criticising the treatment of Muslim ethnic groups in Xinjiang. Later, in March 2021, the European Union, Britain, Canada and the United States of America launched coordinated sanctions against Chinese officials involved in human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

We must also do our bit. This is an issue that cannot be ignored and, again, I reiterate: the case of Xinjiang’s particularly egregious forced labour is not just limited to this part of the world; it is found in many others—Eritrea, North Korea, Burundi. It is in parts of the world, near and far, and, wherever it is, it must not be tolerated. Wherever it is, we must stand up. That is why I support this bill. Whilst it is not, in itself, a total solution, as Senator Watt has articulated, and whilst Labor will seek to make amendments to improve its operation, it is a positive first step, which is why I commend this bill to the Senate.