The need for human rights informed and victim focused responses to modern slavery in Australia

Globally, as many as 45 million people are subjected to some form of modern slavery or slavery like practices including human trafficking, servitude, forced labour, forced or servile marriage, the sale and exploitation of children, and debt bondage. It is estimated 4300 of those are within Australia’s borders.

As the federal government deliberates whether Australia should adopt a Modern Slavery Act, Jacki Holland from Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand notes that while slavery may not be seen as big an issue in Australia as it is in other countries, it is a problem, and responses to this need to be human rights informed and victim focused.

Australia’s response to modern slavery ranks highly in global terms. By comparison to our Asia Pacific neighbours, we have a relatively low prevalence of and exposure to this form of oppression and abuse of vulnerable persons.  Nonetheless, 4300 persons are estimated to be ensnared in slavery in Australia and we are a known destination country for human trafficking. Women and girls are trafficked here for sex, and women and men for forced labour. Slavery has been found in connection with a variety of our local industries including agriculture, information technologies, construction, manufacturing, food production, hospitality and domestic service. Several countries with the highest numbers of people in modern slavery are known to provide low-cost labour that produces consumer goods for our local markets.

The nature of trafficking and slavery means the practices often remain invisible and victims are deeply hidden. Trafficking victims compliance with traffickers might be harnessed though significant coercion. Slavery and forced labour tend to occur in areas that are difficult to monitor, such as small workshops or homes. Even where business operators at the top of the supply chain have sought to understand (geographically distant) supplier practices, these business can be simply unaware of their organisational exposure. A further step removed, consumers can be entirely oblivious.

There is emerging recognition that some of the cases involving unlawful industrial breaches and criminal conduct against migrant workers – whilst not necessarily in breach of anti-slavery or anti-trafficking legislation – do involve abuses of vulnerability that might be indicative of further, more deeply hidden exploitation, or might represent a potential breeding ground for more extreme abuses that do constitute trafficking.

But regardless of whether occurring overseas or more locally, it is consistently the case that those most vulnerable to being exploited are people who are linguistically diverse, isolated from their own culture or community, financially disadvantaged, in significant debt, have tenuous migration status or are unaware of their rights and legal protections. The capacity of such victims to complain is limited by the very circumstances which render them vulnerable to exploitation in the first place.

The exposure to exploitation of these victims gives rise to the experience of further multiple and compound difficulties that give rise to significant need. Forced marriage, for example, can have a range of negative consequences for victims, such as disengagement from education, social isolation, economic insecurity and abuse, violence (including physical, sexual, emotional and economic abuse), loss of childhood, early or forced pregnancy and childbirth, domestic and other forms of servitude, imprisonment, and mental health problems including depression, self-harm, and suicidal ideation. Many of these experiences are common too amongst enslaved and trafficked persons.  Highlighting the need for a continuum of care that extends far beyond liberating and repatriating victims, practitioners working with trafficked women and girls across the Asia-Pacific region report ongoing poverty, lack of education and limited skills hinder rehabilitative efforts and cause victims to remain vulnerable to abuses into the future.[1]

These factors point to a need for maintaining a broad focus not only upon those cases at the most extreme end of the spectrum of abuse and exploitation, but also upon those cases that are of lesser severity but which may ante cede more serious abuses. They point to a need for interventions that educate agency and community service staff, together with vulnerable cohorts, of what constitutes a breach of federal and state laws.  They point, moreover, to the need for victim-centred responses rather than those which are targeted predominantly towards the ‘hard edge’ of policing and seeking criminal convictions.

Current responses to instances of trafficking, for example, can be problematic as they are contingent on victims assisting in the prosecution of cases against their traffickers. Unless victims contribute to the investigation and prosecution of their trafficker, they often entitled to only time-limited recovery and support, before being required to leave Australia. Victims should have greater opportunity to access longer-term or permanent visas. Making access to longer term visas contingent upon supporting criminal justice processes and evidencing risk of danger if returned to country of origin, is detrimental to the health and welfare of the victim. It is also counter-productive to efforts to bolster convictions of offenders. A victim’s trust in Australian authorities, policing and legal processes, particularly given exposure to gross abuses and significant trauma, cannot be sufficiently fostered and built within the timeframes currently offered. The response, in this regard, could go further than is currently the case to meet Article 31 the Australia’s National Plan to Combat Human Trafficking and Slavery 2015-19 which specifies the victim’s best interests should be considered a primary concern in any investigation. If afforded greater time to recover, a victim’s capacity and confidence to cooperate with prosecution efforts would be significantly enhanced. Analysis of investigation, prosecution and conviction rates of comparable countries including the USA, UK and Canada recorded in the US Department of State’s ‘Trafficking in Persons Report 2016’ appear to support this argument – those countries offering more generous visa stays have achieved far greater success in prosecuting cases of human trafficking. A more just approach would give greater recognition to the psychological and other traumas associated with the experience of being trafficked and otherwise exploited.     

Whilst the need to punish those who force people into trafficking, marriage and slavery, and to deter others from like action is of extreme importance, responses need to be victim focused in the first instance. This needs to be a consideration in any policy response. Prosecution and conviction ought not to be the primary or prioritised strategy in responding to the complex issue of slavery and related exploitation. Linking supports - including access to services, refuge accommodation and visas for victims - to aiding law enforcement and border protection efforts can compound the trauma experienced by victims, and undermine recovery and future safety. Adequate housing, legal and immigration assistance, medical care, health education, financial support and access to information and support services should be far more comprehensive than is currently the case, reflecting the human rights and needs of victims.

[1] Evidence drawn from capacity building and training workshop convened by Good Shepherd Asia-Pacific at Tagatay in the Philippines, October 2016