Australia's modern slaves are 'a real mix' and they are 'suffering in silence'

On the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery, Australians are being urged to reach out to those who may be experiencing exploitation, while also ensuring they are being ethical consumers.


Modern slavery remains rampant in Australia, says the country's leading anti-slavery organisation. Source: Shutterstock

Australians have a responsibility to reach out to those who may be trapped in forced marriages or forced labour conditions to help stamp out modern slavery in Australia, says the country's leading anti-slavery organisation.

A legal practice during the 400 years of the Transatlantic slave trade, slavery is in modern times illegal, but it remains rampant across the world, even in Australia.

The latest Global Slavery Index, published in 2018, showed there were 40.3 million people living in modern slavery in 2016, 71 per cent of them women and girls.

Of the total amount, 15.4 million people were in forced marriages, while 24.9 million were in forced labour.

Anti-Slavery Australia is the only specialist legal, research and policy centre in Australia dedicated to the abolition of modern slavery. It is currently supporting around 400 Australians.

"There are people in the Australian community who are suffering in extreme forms of exploitation and suffering in silence because they're not identified," Professor Jennifer Burn, Director of Anti-Slavery Australia, told SBS News.

According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, only one in five victims of modern slavery are ever identified.

"The lack of awareness around what modern slavery is is a major issue," Professor Burn said, mainly because when people think of slaves "they conjure up images of people in chains".

Who are Australia's modern slaves?

The International Labour Organisation and Australian anti-slavery organisation Walk Free estimate there are 15,000 people being kept in slave-like conditions in Australia, but Professor Burn says it is hard to know the exact number, "which is probably much higher".

She says those experiencing slavery in Australia are "a real mix". 

"More women and girls are victims and survivors than men and boys and that's reflected around the world," she said.

"We know from the cases that have been reported to the Australian Federal Police that there is no particular demographic or group that is more at risk than any other."

Professor Burn said the distinction between migrants and non-migrants "isn't particularly helpful in this space".

"We know modern slavery exists across citizenship. There are Australian citizens who are victims of a form of modern slavery and that is forced marriage."

"People are hidden in plain sight. It could be people we are seeing every day who are experiencing something like slavery. It could be someone in a takeaway food shop, it could be backpackers, it could be people in factories, cafes or cleaners, people in homes."

Professor Jennifer Burn, Director of Anti-Slavery Australia.
Professor Jennifer Burn, Director of Anti-Slavery Australia, says modern slavery is rampant. Source: Supplied

Professor Burn urges Australians to reach out to people who may be struggling to see if they would like help.

"This respects the human rights and the dignity of the person being affected," she said.

Other resources and support services include the Australian Federal Police Human Trafficking Team and .

She also suggests Australians educate themselves on modern slavery through  

"Learning more and building knowledge around the facts is absolutely critical," she said.

A global issue

The issue of forced labour is being marked globally on the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which is observed on 25 March each year.

The occasion is an opportunity to honour and remember those who suffered and died at the hands of the brutal slavery system, and raise awareness around the dangers or racism and prejudice.

"It's an opportunity to think about people in forced labour, anywhere in the world, people who are experiencing terrible harm, who are working because they are controlled, threatened, coerced ... because they don't have any choice about the way that they live their lives or where they live or eat or sleep or what they do," Professor Burn said.

Marking the day with the release of a video, Assistant Minister for Customs, Community Safety and Multicultural Affairs Jason Wood described slavery as a "devastating" and "serious" crime.

"Slavery is a devastating crime, a serious crime, that has no place in our communities or supply chains. Unfortunately, modern slavery is a present and enduring challenge confronting nations around the world," he said.

Minister for Customs, Community Safety and Multicultural Affairs Jason Wood.
Minister for Customs, Community Safety and Multicultural Affairs Jason Wood. Source: AAP

Mr Wood said the COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated the problem, enhancing risk factors such as poverty and insecure employment.

The Global Slavery Index 2018 has described the G20 countries as "leaders" when it comes to the consumption of goods made by slaves, importing $A465billion ($US354 billion) worth of at-risk products each year, with Australia accounting for $A15.7 billion ($US12 billion).

The top five at-risk products included laptops, computers and mobile phones, clothing, fish, cocoa and sugarcane, it said.

Mr Wood said Australia was taking "concerted action to combat modern slavery in Australia and in global supply chains".

In December 2019, the government launched the $10.6 million National Action Plan to Combat Modern Slavery 2020-2025, which attempts to eliminate modern slavery in Australia through community outreach programs and the training of frontline officials across the country to better identify the crime and its victims. 

In the second half of 2018, Australia introduced new legislation called The Modern Slavery Act, which came into effect on 1 January 2019.

It requires Australian organisations with consolidated revenue of more than $A100 million to submit a report each year to a government authority, detailing the risks of modern slavery in their operations and supply chains, the actions they are taking to address those risks, and whether they consider those actions are effective or not.

Professor Burn believes the legislation has had an important "flow-on effect".

"The increased awareness in organisations of these human rights abuses and crimes has increased exponentially," she said. 

"Australian organisations now have to ask their suppliers what measures they have introduced. They also have to look at the ways they do business themselves and manage their operations. In an Australian context, that may be the way they employ cleaners or subcontractors, how they construct their office equipment or get their IT," said Professor Burn.

"Many now have a focus on addressing modern slavery in their supply chains and that is a wonderful thing. But there is a lot more to do."

The Act is set to be reviewed in 2022 and will consider whether the threshold should be lowered to $A50 million, and whether there should be penalties or sanctions in place for entities who avoid their reporting obligations. 

There is also debate about the possible appointment of an independent anti-slavery commissioner who would oversee Australia's role in its efforts to eradicate slavery.

In the meantime, Australians have a responsibility to consider where their goods come from, says Professor Burn.

"People in Australia have an opportunity to think about what they buy, to be ethical consumers, to ask questions about where things come from and what organisations are dong to ensure people aren’t working in slavery to produce those goods or services," she said.

"Victims and survivors need to be supported to a greater extent. It is about getting involved, becoming aware and developing better policies and responses."

7 min read
Published 25 March 2021 at 3:35pm
By Caroline Riches
Source: SBS News