Putting survivors’ rights at the centre of responses to modern slavery

Jennifer Burn

To combat this human rights abuse, we need to understand the scale of the problem, amplify survivors’ voices and work towards a fair compensation system.

2 December 2022

December 2 is the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. It provides an important marker for us to reflect upon the growing global problem of modern slavery. It’s also a call to action to rid the world of this scourge.

While most people believe that slavery in all its forms is an international problem, very few Australians are aware of how serious and widespread the problem is in our own country.

What is modern slavery and how big is the problem?

Modern slavery is an umbrella term that includes slavery, servitude, debt bondage, deceptive recruitment for labour, forced marriage, the worst forms of child labour and the trafficking of people into exploitation. Every story of a victim and survivor of slavery represents a horrifying instance of the dehumanisation and commodification of people. Yet perpetrators are rarely prosecuted, and even when they receive prison sentences the victim is unlikely under current law to receive financial compensation in recognition of the harm they have experienced.

The numbers of people living in these deplorable conditions continue to rise.

Recent estimates from the Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage report indicate that there are 49.6 million people living in situations of modern slavery on any given day. Forced labour accounts for 27.6 million, and forced marriage for 22 million–or nearly one of every 150 people in the world. Tragically, more than 3.3 million of all those in forced labour are children.

The problem is growing. In 2017, the global number estimated to be in slavery was 40 million. This means the amount of people living in slavery has increased by 10 million over the past five years. 

Slavery in Australia

Sadly, slavery is a reality here too. Slavery is about control, the commodification of human beings and the exploitation of people. In Australia, people in slavery have been identified in restaurants, farms, building sites, and hidden in private homes.

In the 2021-22 financial year, the AFP received 294 reports of modern slavery and human trafficking. This is the AFP’s highest ever level of reports in a year, increasing from 224 in the previous year to 294. The five most reported crime types were: forced marriage (84 reports), sexual servitude and exploitation (54), forced labour (42), exit trafficking in persons (37), and trafficking in children (21).

When we look at these reported numbers, we must also recognise that this is the tip of the iceberg. In 2019, the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) estimated that for every identified victim of slavery in Australia, four go undetected.

Estimates of the number of victims of slavery in Australia in recent years have ranged between 1,500 to 15,000. It is an incredibly difficult task to assess the true number of victims as the problem is significantly under-identified and under-reported.

It is also a sad reality that without swift action these numbers will likely grow for reasons including the effects of climate change, civil disruption, war, the pandemic and the collapse of global markets. Yet despite 1,671 cases being referred to the Australian Federal Police between 2004 and 2021, only 31 offenders have been convicted. This has been the subject of a key report by the AIC on the attrition of human trafficking and slavery cases.

New Initiatives

In recent years important steps have been taken to try and address modern slavery in Australia and internationally.

In a welcome step, Australia introduced the Modern Slavery Act. In effect from 1 January 2019, the Act requires entities with annual consolidated revenue of $100 million to report on the risks of modern slavery in their operations and supply chains. However, a new report showed that 77 per cent of companies have failed to comply with the basic reporting requirements mandated by the legislation. It is clear that much more needs to be done by companies to comply with their obligations. The Commonwealth has responded by establishing a review of Australia’s Modern Slavery Act to be conducted by Professor John McMillan with an anticipated reporting date of March 2023.

Australia has settled the new National Action Plan to Combat Modern Slavery 2020-25 and in recent weeks, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong signed a Memorandum of Understanding in support of a new Centre of Excellence dedicated to countering human trafficking: the first centre of its kind in Southeast Asia, in which Australia and Thailand will collaborate and strengthen police and government responses, including reforms to protect and victims’ rights.

Additionally, NSW’s Modern Slavery Act came into effect this year with the appointment of Dr James Cockayne as the NSW Anti-Slavery Commissioner. Australia’s new Labor government has a long-standing commitment to establishing at the federal level the office of an independent anti-slavery commissioner.

While this sets the context of modern slavery in Australia, it is critical to remember that people are at the heart of such exploitation. These are people coerced, threatened and deceived.

Civil society organisations and businesses have responded to the challenges of modern slavery and created initiatives to address it. But while the developments outlined above are important, it is the most neglected area that should be at the heart of all initiatives. Survivor engagement and the survivor voice have been missing from policy deliberations. As a result, the response has not been informed by the expertise of survivors. A new report seeks to prioritise the centrality of survivor voice and leadership: Beyond Storytelling: Towards Survivor-informed Responses to Modern Slavery.

The Need for Compensation

In all these developments, it is critical that the rights of victims to compensation are recognised.

Anti-Slavery Australia (ASA), established at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), is advocating to introduce a national compensation scheme that will finally provide some recompense to the many victims of modern slavery in this country. As the only specialist legal centre dedicated to the eradication of slavery in Australia through direct legal advice to survivors, research and policy, the Centre has been well-placed to observe the injustices that have arisen through the currently inadequate approach to compensation. This proposed compensation scheme has undergone widespread consultation with industry, legal and community organisations, and will be presented to government within weeks.

An effective remedy should form the basis of any worthwhile discussion on assisting victims of human rights abuses. A remedy will provide survivors with financial security and some certainty, it will allow survivors to make decisions about their lives, and importantly it will acknowledge the harm that has been perpetrated on our watch.

Australia is signatory to many international conventions and treaties, such as the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, which states that signatory countries must develop legal mechanisms to provide protection and compensation to victims.

Yet under the current system of compensation, Australia is unable to deliver on its commitments and instead continues to rely on eight different state-based schemes for this federal offence.

Continuing to rely on a state-based approach to compensation presents various problems, including: inconsistencies between state and territory schemes, such as time frames for reporting; differences in eligibility criteria; differences in definitions of violence, including debt bondage and coercive control; and varying compensation limits, not designed for modern slavery.

This approach is not only illogical but a major obstacle to survivors being able to gain compensation and properly rebuild their lives. It also risks people falling back into positions of vulnerability and slavery. When someone has left a situation of slavery, they often have nothing: no money, no home, no visa and no options. They may have little or no knowledge of their rights or know how to connect with the Australian community. What they are left with is fear: of arrest, deportation, and the revenge of their captor(s). Their mental and physical health is likely to have been impacted. They may have lost weeks, months or even many years of their lives. Relying on state-based compensation schemes designed for other criminal offences, and not designed for modern slavery, is simply not good enough. It is vital that a national compensation scheme for victims of slavery is established to ensure consistency.

The path ahead

As a society, when we think of slavery, we often imagine chains and whips; artefacts and behaviours, that we believe are of a bygone era. While slavery today might be more subtle than that, and may not necessarily involve obvious physical restraint, it is no less repugnant or demeaning of the human condition. It is a gross breach of human rights.

Under international law, a breach of human rights requires a remedy. A national scheme that properly addresses the circumstances of slavery in Australia is an important means to ensure a proper path to justice for survivors.

It is vitally important for all Australians to know that slavery happens here, and to get a sense of what it can look like—as we can all play a role in helping those affected.

At Anti-Slavery Australia we are working to eradicate slavery through free legal services for survivors, conducting research and advocacy, and providing training and advisory services. But we all have a role to play, and we all must do more.

This includes focusing more on the wellbeing of survivors, and doing more to address the lives of the individuals behind the numbers. It is not enough to simply identify a victim-survivor; we have an obligation to help remedy their abuse.

Globally there is an increasing resistance to the protection of human rights and democracy. Australia has an opportunity to illuminate a clear path toward greater engagement and support for survivors of modern slavery.

A national compensation scheme for survivors is a crucial step towards remedying the catastrophic harm and trauma experienced by victims of modern slavery.

Professor Jennifer Burn is a lawyer and director of Anti-Slavery Australia at UTS, the nation’s only specialist legal practice, research and policy centre committed to the abolition of slavery in this country.

The James Martin Institute for Public Policy, in partnership with the Office of the NSW Anti-slavery Commissioner, is convening a series of expert workshops bringing together policymakers, academics and practitioners to discuss challenges and identify opportunities for an effective approach to combat modern slavery, to support the development of the NSW Anti-slavery Commissioner’s first Strategic Plan. This article is one in a series from workshop participants.

Image credit: kemalbas / Getty Images


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