Contrary to popular belief, slavery was never abolished. In fact, there are more people enslaved today than at any other point in history. The sale of humans into slavery is one of the most profitable industries worldwide, generating US$32 billion annually. JULIAN VAN DER ZEE explores the state of slavery in Australia today.


In 2006, my hometown of Faulconbridge was rattled by allegations of slave labour at the local Indian restaurant.

When the case went to court, we heard that an Indian migrant had worked 14-hour shifts from 9:30am to 11:30pm, seven days a week, over a period of six weeks. His passport was confiscated on arrival and he was housed in a shed in the backyard of the restaurant. On one occasion, the man consumed poison for which he was only given one working day off.[1]

The International Labour Organisation estimates that around 21 million people worldwide are in forced labour, with more than half that number located in the Asia-Pacific region. Less conservative approximations by the Global Slavery Index place the number at closer to 29.8 million. Beau Neilson,Fundraising and Public Relations Coordinator at Anti-Slavery Australia, claims that although the slave trade is larger than it has ever been in human history, common understanding of the issue is quite poor.

“I think there’s a whole lot of denial and disbelief.” Neilson explains that when she meets people and starts talking about her line of work, reactions are often similar: “People like the idea of trafficking being an overseas issue and find it hard to face that it [may be] in their neighbourhood… it makes some feel guilty and complicit.”

Sex trafficking remains the most publically discussed form of modern slavery in Australia. A front-page investigation by the Sun Herald recently highlighted the issue, detailing a student visa scam that trapped Asian women in an illegal brothel network. Organisations such as Anti-Slavery try to raise awareness of the variety of forms of forced labour; from the hospitality, agricultural or construction industries, to forced marriage and cases of servitude – sexual or otherwise – in private dwellings.

Last month, the Federal Government granted Anti-Slavery $360 000 for the next three years to continue their work against Australian incidents. Anti-Slavery was one of four NGOs to receive the support. Other organisations included the Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans (ACRATH), Project Respect and the Scarlet Alliance.

Anti-Slavery primarily operates as a legal service for trafficking and slavery survivors. This includes matters incidental to the survivors’ experiences such as recovering unpaid income. Neilson says the small team may be working on up to, “70 cases at any one time.”

Anti-Slavery has launched an e-learning training program on their website to educate frontline workers including teachers, social workers, lawyers and health care professionals. The program is designed to help better identify potential victims of trafficking and subsequent avenues for referral. “It’s the first of its kind in Australia,” says Neilson. “It’s very exciting for us.”

Another anti-slavery organisation working in the Australian space is Not For Sale, led by Jono Hirt. Acknowledging that the root cause of forced labour is economic disparity, Not For Sale investigates the supply-chains of companies around the world to determine which companies are using forced labor.

“There’s a metaphor that we come back to,” says Hirt. “Imagine there’s a river and there are people flailing around in the river drowning. One approach is to get people out of the river and that’s compassionate and important, we need people doing that. What we’re trying to do is walk upstream and see why people are falling in in the first place.”

Not For Sale encourages consumers to do more than boycott companies failing in their ethical duties to protect supply-chain workers and instead ‘buy-cot’ them. This form of protest proactively supports competitors who are performing ethically. From there, says Hirt, “the market will do the rest.”

Last year Not For Sale published the Australian Fashion Report, which assessed businesses in the garment industry on a number of criteria that include their policies (their sourcing methods, for example); traceability and transparency (the company’s knowledge of its own supply-chain); monitoring and training (mechanisms of identifying slave labour); and worker’s rights. In terms of overall ratings, David Jones, Supré and Lacoste were among the worst offenders, while smaller ethical organisations like Etiko and 3 Fish performed best.

While public understanding of modern slavery in Australia may continue to lag, there are strong suggestions that government awareness of the issue is improving. This is indicated by legislative amendments made in early 2013, which made forced labour and forced marriage standalone offences. Amendments have also made it easier for survivors to receive compensation.

However, The Trafficking in Persons Report 2013 – published by the US Department of State – issued a number of recommendations for Australia. Increasing focus on forms of labour trafficking (as opposed to just sex-trafficking), continuing to train frontline workers to recognise trafficking victims, proactively identifying victims among vulnerable groups (in particular when entering the country), ensuring social services are present alongside law enforcement when interviewing trafficking victims, and taking a leading role in promoting other countries in the Asia Pacific region were some of those recommendations the report made.

With much improvement to be made and with so many organisations working within Australia, there has never been a better time to get involved in the cause.

[1] One of the main points of dispute in the case was whether there was sufficient evidence that the labour was “forced”. Ultimately, the jury returned a verdict which acquitted the accused of the “trafficking in persons” charge. The accused was forced to pay salary arrears to the complainant, as well as an additional $18,200 in penalties into Commonwealth revenue.


Featured image via SMH