Campaign for freedom

Associate Professor Jennifer Burn, Director of the Anti-Slavery Project

Human trafficking and slavery is a global issue, a business that reaps huge profits for the traffickers and misery for the trafficked.

Around 2.4 million people worldwide are in forced labour as a result of labour trafficking, according to the International Labour Organisation.

While we might associate trafficking and slavery with developing countries, it exists here in our own backyard.

Official figures don't exist due to its clandestine nature and a lack of research and reports made by victims, but human trafficking and slavery are seen by the Anti-Slavery Project, part of the UTS Law faculty, as "a very real problem" in Australia.

"Many people would be surprised that the use of forced labour is becoming a serious problem, with consequences for local industries, workers and unions," says Associate Professor Jennifer Burn, Director of the Anti-Slavery Project.

And it is not limited to women or the sex industry.

Would-be migrants are lured to promising employment opportunities and living arrangements, with the prospect of sending money home to their family. In fact, they receive inadequate remuneration, unfair treatment and unacceptable living conditions. They may also be subjected to physical and emotional abuse. Often they cannot leave their employer for fear of retribution.

Human trafficking and slavery occur across the small business, hospitality, agriculture and sex industries. Victims are also trafficked out of Australia.

Forced marriage is a practice similar to slavery, according to the United Nations Supplementary Convention on Slavery. It is emerging as a major issue around the world and in Australia, says Burn, whose team is currently researching its prevalence in Australia. "We don’t yet have a specific offence for forced marriage."

Last year, Burn and her "incredibly vibrant and dynamic" team were responsible for major reforms to visa legislation, which "goes part of the way towards ensuring a fairer response to victims of trafficking in Australia".

Anyone identified as being trafficked by the Australian Federal Police will now be able to lawfully stay in Australia for 45 days. They will also have access to social support and have no obligation to assist police.

"They are given time to reflect, to get advice about their situation and make an informed decision about what they want to do in the future. And that’s reflecting international best practice, which advises that a reflection period be part of any well-constructed response to trafficked people," says Burn.

Anyone who does assist police and is deemed to have made a contribution to an investigation or criminal prosecution, and are in fear of danger on return to their country of origin, may be offered a permanent visa. "But there’s still a lot of work to be done."

Burn and her team are now advocating for reforms to criminal legislation.

An immigration lawyer, Burn established the Anti-Slavery Project in 2003 with the mission of eliminating all forms of human trafficking and slavery. She works alongside a small team of lawyers and law students, including Frances Simmons (B. Law, 2005), who volunteered on the project as a student. She went on to complete her Master of Law at Columbia University, New York, and worked for the Australian Human Rights Commission before returning to work with Burn.

The centre researches patterns and practices of slavery and human trafficking; conducts practical training on slavery and human trafficking issues; provides outreach, education and media advocacy; and coordinates the Sydney Community Response Network to assist survivors.

Awareness, says Burn, is essential: "Unless we open our eyes and know the signs, we may miss opportunities to identify trafficked people and make sure they get help and advice. I am particularly concerned about the lack of public awareness about trafficking for forced labour outside the sex industry."

Case Studies

Maria*

Age: 24
Country of origin: Philippines
Visa type: prospective spouse

Maria had worked in a factory earning $10 a week in the Philippines. She had split with her husband and had to support her young son and mother. A friend said she would help Maria get work in a shop with her relatives in Australia. She would be enrolled in English classes. In return, she was to marry an Australian and give him some money for the visa and airfares.

When Maria arrived, her Australian fiancé took her passport and didn’t enrol her in English classes. She had to work in the family shop seven days a week, for which she was given $20 every fortnight or so. She was never paid a wage. In the evenings she wasn’t allowed to leave the house when her fiancé was at work or out with his friends. She had to cook dinner for him, clean the house and do the gardening.

Maria feared that if she didn't do what they told her, they would hit her. Sometimes, they made vague threats about hurting her family in the Philippines. She had no money, and they told her that if she contacted her family or tried to go back to the Philippines, they would find her and hurt her. Maria didn’t speak much English and she didn’t know anyone else in Australia. She was trapped.

Because of the high degree of control exercised over Maria, as well as the threats of violence and lack of payment for her work, Maria may have been trafficked and enslaved under sections 271 and 270 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code.

“I was hoping to start a new life in Australia, earn money to send back to my family and grow to love my fiancé. But everything promised to me was a lie. I had no opportunities and no friends and no family to help me.”

Prishen*

Age: 43
Country of origin: India
Visa type: three-month holiday

Prishen came to Australia to visit relatives and take a break from his successful restaurant in his village in India. His relatives operated a restaurant in Melbourne and offered to organise his visa, pay for his ticket and let him stay at their house if, in return, he agreed to help out at the restaurant.

The details of how much he would be required to help were vague, but he trusted his family. He did not realise he would be on a tourist visa, which did not allow him to work.

When Prishen arrived, he was told that he had to work in the restaurant every day to pay for the flight and help pay the rent. He worked every night from 5pm to 1am, without a break, and was given about $50 per week to cover his expenses.

He was allowed to do what he wanted during his time off, but spent most of it sleeping. Prishen had thought he would be helping his family, but the situation was not what he had agreed to and soon became exploitative.

By working in the restaurant, Prishen had breached his holiday visa conditions – even though he was not paid for the work. Prishen’s family was in breach of sections 245AA to 245AK of the Migration Act 1958 (Cth), which make it an offence to knowingly or recklessly employ or refer for work a person who does not have a valid visa or who is working in breach of their visa conditions.

It is unclear whether any of the trafficking offences in the Commonwealth Criminal Code would apply in Prishen’s case. Establishing whether offences were committed would require a detailed analysis of exactly what Prishen had been told before he came to Australia, and what the intention of his family had been. It is unlikely that his family committed any slavery offences under the Code. The Code does not have a stand-alone offence of forced labour.

However, Prishen may be able to bring a civil action against his family to recover unpaid wages. His family could also face severe financial penalties or even imprisonment under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth).

“I would never have thought that my own relatives would force me into labour. But without any money, I felt I had to work to repay them for allowing me to stay with them.”

* Not their real names

Words: Caroline Jenkins