By Umberto Bacchi

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A group of prominent religious leaders urged Australia on Thursday to introduce laws to ensure forced labor is not used to produce goods sold in the country, saying ending slavery needed to be a national priority.

In a letter to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, 18 faith leaders said Australia should follow Britain's lead in getting companies to disclose steps they have taken to clean up their supply chains under its Modern Slavery Act, passed last year.

"Every person deserves to live a life of freedom," Anglican Archbishop Philip Freier said in the letter signed by leaders of the Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Jewish faiths.

"The eradication of modern slavery needs to be a national priority."

Nearly 46 million people globally live as slaves, forced to work, sold for sex, trapped in debt bondage or born into servitude, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index by Australia-based rights group Walk Free Foundation.

It estimates that Australia is home to 4,300 victims of forced labor, sexual exploitation and domestic servitude but has identified the country as one of the most pro-active in tackling modern slavery.

According to the index, the greatest number of people living as slaves are in countries such as India, China, Pakistan and Bangladesh which provide cheap labor for businesses producing goods destined for Europe, Japan, North America and Australia.

"Australians consume goods and services from all over the world. As consumers we do not want to inadvertently contribute to the profits of slavery," said Stuart McMillan, president of the Uniting Church in Australia, in the letter published to coincide with International Day for the Abolition of Slavery.

James Condon, the head of the anti-slavery Australian Freedom Network, which counts the faith leaders among its members, praised the supply chain transparency clause in Britain's anti-slavery law.

"The Australian community and business need to begin the discussion about taking this path," Condon said in a statement.

(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi, Additional reporting by Magdalena Mis, Editing by Katie Nguyen.)