An inconvenient truth

Image: Arani Ahmed and Associate Professor Jennifer Burn

For many Australians, the concept of human trafficking or forced labour is an alien issue – one that is confined to other, less-developed countries. Yet such abuses do occur in Australia, and UTS's Anti-Slavery Australia is doing more than just raise awareness of the key issues.

Australia is part of an Asia-Pacific region that is one of the black spots of a larger international trafficking problem.

Associate Professor Jennifer Burn, Director of Anti-Slavery Australia, based at UTS, says the scale of human trafficking in Australia is unclear, although Australian Federal Police have run 325 investigations since 2004.

"Trafficking and slavery is still invisible really – it's not really on most people's radar," she says.

Burn notes the Asia-Pacific region is clearly an area in which considerable trafficking activity occurs. While most people associate the issue with the commercial sexual exploitation, it exists in many other forms.

"Most of the media coverage has been about women in the sex industry," Burn says. "But trafficking covers many different kinds of abuse, including forced slavery in a whole range of industries. It involves men and women, boys and girls in exploitative conditions that are so grave that it is, in fact, criminal exploitation."

Global scourge

The latest International Labour Organization (ILO) figures indicate that 20.9 million people are victims of forced labour globally, with about 90 per cent of the victims exploited in the private economy.

Forced sexual exploitation accounts for about 4.5 million of the total, while abuses within economic activities such as agriculture, construction, domestic work or manufacturing represents about 14.2 million, or 68 per cent of cases. The remainder falls under the category of state-imposed forced labour. While such numbers are disturbing, Burn believes many cases of human trafficking and abuse are not identified simply because people lack understanding of the issue or are not aware of the signs of potential cases of exploitation.

As the only specialist legal and policy centre in Australia focused on slavery, trafficking and extreme labour exploitation, Anti-Slavery Australia is at the forefront of efforts to increase awareness of the problem and contribute to solutions. Set up in 2003, the centre is based within the Faculty of Law at UTS and focuses on strategies to alert communities to the insidious nature of trafficking.

It works with labour and community groups to promote awareness, rights and remedies, including Red Cross Australia, Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans (ACRATH) and World Vision Australia, as well as business groups such as Clayton Utz, Mallesons Stephen Jaques, Foxtel and Lexis Nexis.

Anti-Slavery Australia also oversees a pro bono lawyers' network to represent and assist people who have experienced trafficking or slavery in Australia.

Student action

UTS students and researchers play an integral role in delivering Anti-Slavery Australia programs. The trafficking issue is personal for Miguel Cruz, a law student of Filipino heritage who is doing Practical Legal Training (PLT) with the centre. Within the Asia-Pacific region, Filipinos are one of the racial groups that suffer high levels of abuse.

"I'm from a Filipino background and one of the most fulfilling aspects of this placement for me is that I'm able to help people from my background – people from The Philippines who have been trafficked," he says. "So it's very important for me."

Image: Arani Ahmed and Associate Professor Jennifer Burn

Cruz became involved in the centre after studying in a refugee law class. His work chiefly involves case work related to the sex trade or labour trafficking. After graduation, Cruz hopes to stay involved in the anti-slavery fight and make a difference to people's lives.

"I think migration is a big issue and it's an area I hope to be practising in." Another UTS law graduate Arani Ahmed serves as a legal researcher at Anti-Slavery Australia, also as part of her PLT requirements. She contributes to journal articles on trafficking and slavery, and helps research submissions for government inquiries. "Seeing things develop on a policy level is really interesting," she says.

Ahmed engages in specific work associated with forced marriages.

"I think that's a big issue, especially for young women to have awareness-raising about forced marriage …to identify when it could be happening and who to notify in that situation."

While the work is often confronting, Ahmed appreciates the opportunity to play a role in improving the lives of vulnerable people.

"Personally, I've always been interested in human rights in general and specifically gender-based human rights," she says. "It's wonderful to do a law degree and then actually use it for something that's beneficial to so many people."

Educational imperative

The ILO report identifies Asia as a particular trouble spot for human trafficking and slavery. It reveals that the Asia-Pacific region accounts for 11.7 million, or 56 per cent, of the global total of cases. The second-highest number occurs in Africa (3.7 million, or 18 per cent), followed by Latin America and the Caribbean (1.8 million, or nine per cent).

The statistics, and Asia's status as a source country for some trafficking into Australia, underlines the importance of Anti-Slavery Australia's work. The centre plays a key role in raising awareness about the gravity of human trafficking and slavery through a range of mediums such as websites, events and social media.

For example, information and videos on the centre's website help educate the broader public about the problem, while community service announcements such as the story of an enslaved cook – which screened about 9000 times through the Val Morgan cinema advertising network across Australia late last year – are an important part of the educational program.

"So there is a gradual increase in awareness, but there are gaps," says Burn, who notes that people under the age of 23 and those in the over-60 demographic are least aware of the issue.

Burn and her team have also established the Anti-Slavery Australia Freedom Awards, which recognise individuals and organisations that contribute to stopping slavery, people trafficking and forced labour. Given the dark nature of slavery, Burn says the event is an important way for people to celebrate actions that relieve suffering. "There's a lot of joy around that recognition of initiatives."

Ongoing campaign

While the plight of abused people is a great cause for concern, there are some rays of light. New laws criminalising forced marriage, forced labour and organ trafficking have been introduced into the Australian Parliament by Attorney-General Nicola Roxon.

Colloquially known as the Slavery Bill, it is designed to address all forms of slavery, servitude and forced labour. The legislation also seeks to punish people who help to enslave or traffic people, as well as those who keep slaves. The Bill has been passed in the House of Representatives and is awaiting final approval in the Senate.

Burn is confident that such legislation can help strike another blow against human trafficking and slavery.

UTS is grateful to those who have made a donation in support of Anti-Slavery Australia, including the Neilson Foundation which has given generously to raise awareness of slavery and to eradicate all forms of slavery in Australia. For more information on how you can support Anti-Slavery Australia, please contact Rachel Tomlins on (02) 9514 9825 or

Words: Cameron Cooper Image: Nick Cubbin