For most Australians, the terms "slavery" and "human trafficking", at least in the domestic context, have very little meaning and very little proximity in our lives.
For a few Australians the terms conjure up images of Asian women who have been trafficked into Australia for the purpose of working in seedy, unregulated brothels.
Since the early 1990s, media interest and headlines about sex slavery have helped catalyse a response from government with exploitation in the sex industry criminalised under the broader concepts of "slavery" and ''human trafficking". This response has helped hundreds of women escape slavery-like conditions which continue to this day.
While this is a positive, it is regrettable that the early response from government meant "human trafficking" and "slavery" became synonymous with the sex industry and not the broader economy in which slavery and slavery-like practices still exist. To this day, there remains a limited understanding among Australians of how and where slavery and slavery-like practices can occur, who can be victimised and how those who are trapped can be freed and find justice.
The reality is that slavery and similar practices can be perpetrated in any situation where there is an opportunity to make money by exploiting the relatively vulnerable and powerless. There are thousands of migrants in Australia in hospitality, domestic work, agriculture, construction, retail, manufacturing and other industries in which slavery-like conditions may be imposed.
Until recently, Australia’s narrow focus on sex work meant it did not adequately address this abuse when non-sex industry workplaces were raided, or when people escaped from slavery-like conditions and asked authorities for help. This meant slaveholders and traffickers profited from the cracks into which many victims have fallen in the past decade.
Last year, new offences addressing the full range of slavery and slavery-like practices were finally passed into law at the federal level. These new offences are a victory for migrant workers who may be subjected to such conditions right here in Australia. In particular, the offences of servitude, forced labour and deceptive recruiting for labour or services have levelled the playing field for employers.
Since the new laws have come into effect, the Australian Federal Police have begun 60 new investigations, of which 43 per cent are related to sexual exploitation, 35 per cent to labour exploitation and 17 per cent to forced marriages. There are nine individuals awaiting trial for slavery offences.
While it is a positive step that the law has finally caught up with the reality of human trafficking and slavery in Australia, for victims and their families, justice also means getting the right support at the right time. Empowerment comes from having information and choice.
Regrettably, Australia still does not have a victim support model which comprehensively meets the needs of victims. Grassroots community organisations who work with survivors continue to champion a rights-based response that includes changes to the visa framework and entitlements, access to housing, compensation, education and training and speedy reunification with family.
The recommendations were supported by the UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons in her 2011 report after she visited Australia and spoke to government, community and those who had experienced slavery first-hand.
The Australian government is to be commended for its ongoing commitment to convening its National Roundtable on People Trafficking and Slavery, which includes representatives from government, business and the community sector.
Raising the awareness of victims about how to get help is an important part of the government’s strategic response. But, if the government does not reform victim support, there will be less incentive for victims to come forward.
on Wednesday, the Salvation Army will launch the Freedom Partnership, an initiative to end modern slavery.
The Freedom Partnership will allow ordinary Australians to be part of the largest, most organised and dynamic anti-slavery movement in history. It is through this movement that everyday Australians can influence policy, contribute to Australia’s response and make justice a reality for those who are not free. For more information on the Freedom Partnership, visit endslavery.salvos.org.au
Jenny Stanger is the national manager of the Salvation Army Freedom Partnership.