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New agency needed to combat slavery practices in Australia

Slavery-like practices continue to be found around Australia today, a federal joint committee has found, despite a national action plan involving 11 Commonwealth agencies.

The report Hidden in Plain Sight, tabled Thursday, was careful not to criticise any existing government efforts, but nonetheless recommended a new independent agency take over.

But farmers are against the push, warning that acknowledging the presence of slavery in Australia will damage the country’s brand.

The committee, chaired by Liberal MP Chris Crewther, seeks new criminal legislation to define modern slavery, an independent anti-slavery commissioner, and the introduction of global supply chain reporting requirements.

“Modern slavery describes some of the greatest crimes of our time,” Crewther writes in his foreward. These include human trafficking, debt bondage, forced labour — particularly for migrant workers and backpackers in regional areas. The Australian Federal Police also continues to receive reports of forced marriage, sexual exploitation and child trafficking.

But the push for reform suffers from limited credible data about the prevalence of these practices in Australia.

“…their passports taken away, forced to work 15 hours a day, seven days a week, without payment…”

An annual Global Slavery Index, published by the Walk Free Foundation, attempts to measure the global prevalence of modern slavery. It estimates around 45.8 million people across the world were subject to some form of modern slavery. Based on that global estimate, Walk Free estimates there are approximately 4300 victims in Australia.

If these estimates are correct — Crewther put stock in them — there are lot of people slipping through the cracks. Since human trafficking offences were introduced in 2004, around 750 referrals have been made to the AFP.

Human trafficking and slavery offence referrals to the AFP

Offence
2013-14
2014-15
2015-16
2016-17
Forced marriage
11
33
69
60
Sexual exploitation
31
34
39
19
Labour exploitation
22
33
36
19
Child trafficking
2
11
10
6
Trafficking
2
4
13
9
Other
2
4
2
25
Total
70
119
169
138

More than half of these referrals in 2016-17 come from New South Wales, after a sharp decline in referrals from Victoria — the next highest — in the last year.

It’s not just the AFP involved in combating modern slavery. Six departments have broad obligations under the national action plan, including Prime Minister and Cabinet, Attorney-General’s, Immigration and Border Protection, Foreign Affairs and Trade, Employment and Social Services. Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission and Australian Institute of Criminology have responsibility for obtaining useful data — remembering there is virtually none. While the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions are responsible once the crimes are discovered.

Despite estimates of victims in the thousands, and AFP referrals in the hundreds, successful prosecutions are little more than a handful. Since 2011, 25 cases have proceeded to prosecution. One additional case was prosecuted by a state agency.

In that same period nine cases have resulted in a conviction, according to answers it gave in Senate estimates earlier this year. CDPP confirmed these numbers are still current.

A modern slave ring in Brisbane

In 2015, Operation Arc freed 57 Taiwanese slaves caught in a Brisbane scam and forced to work 15 hours a day, seven days a week, without payment. It was one Australia’s two successful slavery prosecutions in the last year, and was featured in the CDPP’s annual report:

“Hidden in two luxury Brisbane homes, the Taiwanese nationals had arrived in Brisbane on working holiday visas, but had their passports taken away. They had to make up to 60 calls each per shift. The calls were to trick wealthy Chinese citizens into revealing their bank balances, pretend they were suspected of money laundering, and demand the victims pay a large fine in return for not being prosecuted.

“The syndicate was discovered in August 2015 when one of the victims escaped and raised the alarm. The Australian Federal Police immediately launched an investigation, called Operation Arc, into the transnational Taiwanese organised crime syndicate running the fraudulent call centres.”

Four Taiwanese men pleaded guilty, including two ring leaders of the scam and two support crew with limited knowledge of the full workings. The sentences handed down by the Brisbane Magistrates Court ranged from two to three years imprisonment for causing a person to enter or remain in servitude. This was also the first conviction and sentence for the offence of supporting a criminal organisation in Australia (two years imprisonment). The longest sentence (three years and three months) was not for slavery itself, but for buying of their labours, also known as ‘dealing in proceeds of crime worth $50,000 or more’.

This was no high wealth operation. The slave house cost approximately $68,000 to run from an initial seed fund of $93,000 from Taiwan. The support crew only expected to be paid 20,000 to 30,000 Taiwanese dollars (AUD$868 – $1300) per month plus a 5% bonus.

Farmers fear unfair targeting

Much of the committee’s examination of slavery-like practices in Australia was centred on agricultural producers.

“Using words like ‘slavery’ is very emotional … is that how we want the rest of the world to perceive us—with that branding?”

Tania Chapman, chair of Citrus Australia, echoed many voices from the farming sector when she testified in Mildura, in the fruit bowl of far North West Victoria, that most producers are doing the right thing and more audits and checks will only hit at growers’ pockets.

“Whilst I would never blame a victim for what happens to them by an evil or unscrupulous person in the workforce, perhaps we need to ensure that these labourers are also on the front foot,” Chapman told the committee. “Some responsibility does sit with each and every person living and working in Australia.

Chapman argued that no amount of legislation will  stop abuse of workers as long as foreigners without legal visas are willing to work for less in order to stay under the radar.

“Using words like ‘slavery’ is very emotional and easily misconstrued,” Chapman added. “Is that a message we really want to send that Australia is a country of slavery? Is that how we want the rest of the world to perceive us—with that branding?”

Author Bio

Harley Dennett

Harley Dennett is editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's held communications roles in the New South Wales public sector and Defence, and been a staff reporter for newspapers in Sydney and Washington DC.