There Are 4,300 People Living in Slavery in Australia Today
Illustration by Ashley Goodall


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There Are 4,300 People Living in Slavery in Australia Today

Sam was 17 years old when he came to Australia for a job in construction. By the time he escaped he was blind in one eye and had a brain injury.

This article originally appeared on VICE Australia. Four thousand three hundred.

That's how many people the Global Slavery Index estimates are enslaved in Australia today. It's a number that seems manageable—something a country as wealthy as Australia could overcome. At the same time, it's unbelievable. How could this be happening in 2016?

However Fiona David, executive director of global research at the Walk Free Foundation, is quick to warn about reducing this problem to a statistic. "Numbers like 4,300 people in modern slavery are pretty alarming," she says. "But I think it's really important to look at people who are behind those numbers."


Fiona dives into the story of young man named Sam, who came to Australia on the promise of a job in construction through friends of friends. "By the time Sam got out of that situation he was blind in one eye and had a brain injury," Fiona explains, pausing for a moment. "His employer, who was making him work was so violent…" Sam was never paid, other than what his employer called "cigarette money." He was only 17 years old.

"It's important to realise that when we're talking about modern slavery, we're not just talking about people having bad jobs," Fiona says. "We use that terminology about situations where someone is forced to work and they can't leave—they can't say no. It really is a very extreme situation."

Walk Free's research has found people who are enslaved, both in Australia and around the world, come from all ages and backgrounds. In the past, there has been a focus on women trafficked into the sex industry; however, there's growing risk in industries like agriculture and cleaning. Increasingly, men and underage children are affected in significant numbers too.

As Fiona points out though, the risks for women who are enslaved are distinct. "It's really hard to draw the line between what's sex trafficking and what's labour trafficking, when very often these crimes seem to involve different abuses and sexual violence," she says. "Sex trafficking can happen in the Australian sex industry, and it has, but I think it's important to recognise that even in cases of domestic workers or agricultural workers unfortunately when women are involved sexual assault tends to be involved as well."


Another misconception is that modern slavery is pulled off through highly organised crime. "Sometimes it is, absolutely that's the case. But sometimes, alarmingly, it's just kind of your average family next door that just happen to have a domestic worker who doesn't see the light of day for three years," Fiona says. "People see somebody is vulnerable—they see an opportunity—and they are willing to take it."

Fiona points to Sandra, who worked with a Australian family in the Pacific Islands, and came to Australia to work for them when they moved back home. "They told her they'd sort all of her immigration paperwork out and she just needed to come," Fiona says. "Unfortunately they were deceiving her the whole time. Sandra was here for three years working without pay, kept in a private house. She wasn't allowed to leave, wasn't allowed to make phone calls…

"That's one example, one of the people that's behind that number."

Eventually, Sandra was able to get out, after some concerned neighbours befriended her and called immigration, fearing for her welfare. Hers is one of the hopeful stories where things turned out okay. And, as Fiona points out, there are protections in Australia for enslaved workers who come forward and cooperate with police. "But it's not an easy pathway. I don't think anybody would suggest it's some free ride to permanent residency," she says. "It involves a lot of engagement with the police over a long time—some of these court cases can last for six years."


It's something of a catch-22 that the very department that can help these people is the one they've been coached to fear most. Many enslaved workers come from countries plagued by corrupt law enforcement, and most are threatened by the people exploiting them that they'll be deported by immigration if they step out of line. "Even if that's not true, the threat of that is enough to really hold people back from talking to the authorities," Fiona says. "The number of people who are going to put their hands up and say, 'I need help' in this situation are really quite small. We can't just rely on a law and order response."

Walk Free wants the Australian Government to take more action to end modern slavery. There's need for a more community-based way for people to report abuse, one that doesn't necessarily require them to go to the police. Fiona also points to programs that have worked overseas, like those in the UK and California, which encourage businesses to be transparent about their entire global supply chain.

"It is absolutely what's happening in Australia," she says. "But it's also what's happening in, say, Thai fishing." She's referring to cases that have been unearthed recently, of fishermen that were literally being enslaved on islands, whipped with stingray tails, and kept in cages. Reporting by the New York Times painted a stark picture: Those who fled recounted horrific violence: the sick cast overboard, the defiant beheaded, the insubordinate sealed for days below deck in a dark, fetid fishing hold.

"The sort of things that you couldn't make it up if you tried," Fiona says. "Fish from these markets are coming to Australia." And this is the issue at the heart of modern slavery—it's a global problem. More often than not, it sees people from poor countries being exploited for the gain of those who live in wealthy countries.

The 4,300 people in slavery in Australia make up just a tiny percentage of the 45.8 million people who are still enslaved around the world. Fifty-eight percent of whom are held in just five countries—India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan. It's no coincidence these are the countries that produce the goods we've come to expect at incredibly low prices. "We all buy clothes, we all buy electronics, we all buy food," Fiona says. Or, to put it simply—we are all complicit.

"Something that someone said to me once that I thought was really wise was, "[Slavery] is about vulnerability,'" Fiona says. "If you add to that you're an irregular migrant, that's another layer of vulnerability. The more of those factors you have, the more vulnerable you can be. So it's not about men or women, or adults or children—it's what situation somebody is in and how exploitable are they."

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