The Global Slavery Index 2018 estimates that on any given day in 2016, there were 15,000 living in conditions of modern slavery in Australia, a prevalence of 0.6 victims of modern slavery for every thousand people in the country.
There are no national data reporting the number of identified victims of modern slavery.1 Currently, the Australian government provides data through several core agencies, such as the Australian Federal Police (AFP), the Red Cross who is the service provider of the Support for Trafficked People Program (STPP), and the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP).2 The AFP received 169 new referrals of alleged human trafficking and slavery-related offences during the 2015/16 financial year.3 Sixty-nine of these offences related to forced marriage, 39 related to sexual exploitation, 36 concerned labour exploitation, and the remainder of referrals related to other forms of human trafficking and slavery.4 Since 2004, the CDDP prosecuted 19 individuals for modern slavery offences. Ten of those individuals were convicted of slavery offences, six of servitude offences, and four of human trafficking offences, two of which involved trafficking of children. As of April 2017, six human trafficking and slavery matters were still before the court.5 In February 2018, the Australian government announced that it will generate a national estimate for modern slavery for the first time.6
Cases of forced labour exploitation in Australia predominantly occur in industries considered at risk, including agriculture,7 construction,8 domestic work,9 meat processing,10 cleaning, hospitality, and food services.11 Historically, those identified as victims of labour exploitation were working as domestic workers, however there has been an increase in referrals relating to hospitality, agriculture and construction.12 Many of these industries employ a high percentage of migrant workers13 who enter Australia through its temporary visa scheme designed to fulfil Australia’s labour shortages.14 A 2016 senate inquiry into wage abuse and visas uncovered exploitation of temporary work visa holders in Australia, in particular individuals on working holiday visas, Seasonal Worker program visas, international student visas, and skilled temporary “457" visas.15 A 2017 report drawing on survey responses from over 4,300 temporary migrants working in a range of jobs all across Australia, found that Australia has a ‘silent underclass’ of migrant workers, primarily made up of international students and backpackers, who are paid well below the minimum wage, with some of these also working in conditions that could amount to forced labour.16 The number of individuals on temporary working visas in 2015-16 amounted to 741,846 (excluding subclass 444 visas for New Zealanders),17 accounting for about 6.2 percent of the total workforce.18 In addition to these lawfully residing temporary migrants, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (now Department of Home Affairs) reported 1,970 illegal workers during 2015-16.
While the scale of forced labour is difficult to determine, a few cases have come to light in the agriculture industry. In 2014, a multi-agency government taskforce raided a market garden property in Carabooda, Western Australia (WA). According to news reports, authorities detained about 130 foreign nationals and arrested the owners of the worksite, the brothers Michael and Cahn Le, and several co-accused on multiple offences, including harbouring unlawful citizens. The foreign workforce reportedly entered Australia lawfully but had overstayed their visas.19 There were indicators that the workers identified during the raid were victims of forced labour. Red flags included workers being housed in sub-standard accommodation,20 illegal pay deductions for rent,21 situations of debt bondage,22 and pay below the minimum wage.23 The trial began in October 2017 and was abandoned after eight months in May 2018, resulting in no convictions.24 Also in WA, in 2017, the government taskforce Cadena carried out one of the largest raids in Pemberton in nearly three years as a result of which 45 foreign workers were reportedly detained in immigration detention.25 Based on information from media reports, the Pemberton workers were exploited, showing multiple indicators of modern slavery, including receiving little or no payment, pay deductions for accommodation, and being housed in poor or substandard conditions.26
Cases of exploitation of domestic workers continue to be reported, with reports in early 2018 of domestic workers who had endured and escaped conditions of modern slavery in diplomatic households in Canberra.27 Individuals experience withholding of passports, working excessive hours, low wages, threats to themselves or their family, as well as restriction on their movement.28
Forced sexual exploitation of adults and children
According to the Australian government’s most recent data, the majority of modern slavery victims identified by authorities to date (end of financial year 2015/16) have been women from Asia who have been exploited within the sex industry.29 In financial year 2015/16, 39 of 169 referrals to the AFP related to forced sexual exploitation.30 Sex trafficking of migrant women also accounts for the majority of prosecutions in Australia.31 In September 2017, a Malaysian woman was found guilty of trafficking a friend to Australia and forcing her to work as a sex worker in Perth.32 This is the first time an investigation, prosecution, and conviction for trafficking have all occurred in WA. There are reports that some cases of forced sexual exploitation involve partner migration visas, where female migrants are tricked into sham marriages and then forced into sexual exploitation or domestic servitude. While most of the individuals identified are in registered brothels, there are reports of Indigenous and migrant women and girls being trafficked for sex in informal settings across regional and remote Australia.33
Early and forced marriage has been noted as a growing concern in Australia. While the true extent of the issue remains unknown, of the 169 modern slavery referrals received by the AFP in 2015/16, 69 referrals referred to forced marriage. The National Children’s Youth and Law Centre reported that between 2011 and 2013, 250 cases of child marriage were identified by research respondents.34 It is reported that most suspected cases of forced marriage have involved Australian citizens under the age of 18, with family members organising a marriage for them overseas without their full and free consent.35 To date, there have been no convictions under Australia’s forced marriage legislation,36 with only two cases reaching the courts in the last five years.37
Imported products at risk of modern slavery
While modern slavery clearly occurs within Australia, the realities of global trade and business make it inevitable that Australia, like many other countries globally, will also be exposed to the risk of modern slavery through the products it imports. Policy-makers, businesses, and consumers must become aware of this risk and take responsibility for it. Table 1 lists the top five products (according to US$ value) imported by Australia from countries which are at risk of using modern slavery in the production of these goods.38
Table 1Imports of products at risk of modern slavery to Australia
|Product at risk of modern slavery||Import value|
(in thousands of US$)
|Laptops, computers, and mobile phones|
Apparel and clothing accessories
|4,520,010||Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam|
|China, Ghana, Indonesia, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand|
|Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana|
Australia sources 73 percent (amounting to about US$ 7.0 billion) of its laptops, computers and mobile phones imports from China and Malaysia. Both countries have a large electronics manufacturing industry that has been accused of exploiting workers.39 Over 70 percent of Australia’s imported clothes are sourced from countries where the apparel industry is considered at risk of using modern slavery. Nearly US$ 370 million worth of fish are imported by Australia from a range of countries, with the main share of fish imports originating from Thailand (US$ 223 million). Thailand in particular has faced allegations of trafficking and forced labour in its fishing industry in recent years.40 Rice from India and cocoa from Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana are two other at-risk products which Australia imports at a considerable value. Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana are the largest cocoa producing countries globally41 and both have been under scrutiny for using forced labour in the growing and harvesting of cocoa.42
Migrants are particularly vulnerable to modern slavery in Australia. This is supported by the fact that so far, most identified cases of modern slavery in Australia have involved migrants, although Australian citizens have also experienced exploitation. In the 2015/16 financial year, 68 out of a total of 80 clients on STPP were foreign citizens, with the main countries of citizenship being India, the Philippines, Thailand and Afghanistan.43
The risks facing temporary migrant workers are a result of a combination of the inherent vulnerabilities associated with being a temporary migrant and the characteristics of the industry in which temporary migrants tend to work. It is important to differentiate between highly skilled and sought after temporary migrants (who are usually less vulnerable to exploitation) and less-skilled migrants coming to Australia from countries where work opportunities may be scarce and where wages are typically low. Low-skilled temporary migrant workers are vulnerable to forced labour exploitation, starting with exploitation by those who facilitate their journey to Australia.44 The charging of fees by migration agents or labour brokers (on- and offshore) who organise visas or jobs for potential migrants is common and may mean that migrants arrive in Australia with large debts that need to be repaid.45 Cases of “rogue” labour hire companies that are often part of an opaque sub-contracting network exploiting vulnerable workers have been reported.46 This includes underpayment, non-payment of entitlements, such as leave or superannuation, and sub-standard accommodation in industries such as agriculture,47 meat processing,48 and construction.49
Once migrant workers have arrived in Australia, cultural and language barriers, limited knowledge of workplace laws and standards in Australia, and the reliance on employers who sponsor their temporary visas can further make them susceptible to modern slavery.50 Financial difficulties exacerbated by restricted work entitlements, the temporary nature and type of work, and a general fear of authorities due to risks associated with non-compliance of visa requirements contribute to vulnerability.51 For example, workers in the government-run Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) are dependent on their employers who sponsor their visas to come over to Australia, thus increasing worker’s vulnerability to abuse.52 Although the program requires employers to be approved by the Australian government, recent reports have revealed exploitation, including severe underpayment, substandard accommodation, unfair wage deductions, long working hours, and lack of health care access.53 The recent case of a Tongan national who fell ill and died in the hostel where he was staying while picking fruit on a farm is currently being investigated by the Queensland coroner.54
Domestic workers in both diplomatic and non-diplomatic households are highly vulnerable to modern slavery due to the hidden nature of their work and the power imbalance between the worker and the employer, which reinforces the employer’s ability to exploit and abuse their domestic workers.55 In the case of domestic workers in diplomatic households, the power imbalance is particularly prominent due to the employer’s high social status which also acts as a disincentive for the domestic worker to take action to change his or her situation.56 Diplomatic immunity further complicates any attempts to investigate cases of forced labour.57 Additionally, the majority of domestic servitude victims reportedly do not come to Australia through a formal visa program, instead entering on tourist visas or other visa categories that are not subject to employer compliance monitoring. This in turn increases their vulnerability and makes prevention and identification of abuse more difficult. Those that enter Australia on a formal domestic worker visa program are generally tied to their employer through their visa which can also increase risk of exploitation.58
Young people aged between 16 to 18 years are the most at risk of child, early, or forced marriage in Australia, with most cases involving family members.59 Current policy responses to forced marriage have grown out of the national anti-trafficking response in Australia, which place an emphasis on criminal justice. While law enforcement has an important role to play in responding to forced marriage, policies and programs which assume that forced marriage is first and foremost a law enforcement issue can increase vulnerabilities by failing to meet the needs of victims — for example, some victims will not want to report their parents or relatives to the police.60
Response to modern slavery
Australia has criminalised human trafficking, slavery and slavery-like practices, including servitude and forced labour, in Division 270 and 271 of the Criminal Code. In November 2015, the passing of the Crimes Legislation Amendment Powers, Offences and Other Measures) Act 2015 further strengthened the offence of forced marriage, which was first introduced in 2013.61 The amendments reflect the understanding and interpretation of forced marriage as a slavery-like practice, expanding the definition to include circumstances in which one or both parties do not freely and fully consent to the marriage because he or she is incapable of understanding the effect and nature of a marriage ceremony, for reasons such as age or mental capacity. Under the amended definition, a person under the age of 16 is presumed to be incapable of understanding the nature and effect of a marriage ceremony. The amendments also increased the penalties for those offences.62
The current legal framework requires victims or people at risk of forced marriage to engage with federal law enforcement to be eligible for assistance under the government’s STPP. However, this cooperation requirement increases vulnerability as it acts as a significant deterrent for people at risk of forced marriage to report their concerns. In February 2018, the Australian government announced a 12-month trial that will enable victims of forced marriage to access up to 200 days of support through the STPP without being required to contribute to the criminal investigation, though referrals onto the program must still be made by the AFP. This removes a critical barrier in providing support for victims of forced marriage.63
In February 2017, the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade was officially asked to conduct an inquiry into establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia comparable to the United Kingdom’s Modern Slavery Act 2015.64 In August 2017, the government announced they will introduce legislation that will require large businesses to report annually on their actions taken to address modern slavery.65 The government is also considering providing a free, publicly accessible central repository where all modern slavery statements would be listed, and establishing an office for an Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, similar to that of the United Kingdom. The Australian government has committed to introduce a modern slavery bill to Parliament by mid-2018 with the aim to pass legislation by end of 2018.66
In June 2018, the New South Wales Parliament approved the New South Wales 2018 Modern Slavery Act. Similar to the UK Modern Slavery Act, and in line with the recommendations of inquiry into establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade,67 the Act includes provisions to establish an Independent Commissioner. The Commissioner will advocate and promote action for modern slavery, make recommendations and provide information, training and advice, monitor the government’s response, and cooperate with government and non-government agencies.68 The legislation also includes supply chain transparency provisions and a central repository for housing statements produced by commercial entities under these provisions.69
The Fair Work Act 2009 provides a set of minimum employment standards and workplace protections and empowers the Fair Work Ombudsman to investigate suspected breaches of these standards.70 In September 2017, the Fair Work Amendment (Protecting Vulnerable Workers) Bill 2017 was passed in both Houses of Parliament. Once it has received Royal Assent, the bill will amend the Fair Work Act 2009 to impose stricter penalties on fraudulent employers and to extend the powers of the Fair Work Ombudsman to investigate and gather evidence of potential workplace breaches.71 While the Act was supported by unions and NGOs, it was regarded as falling short of adding additional protections for workers and whistle blowers, which would further incentivise the reporting of workplace violations.72 The new provisions target growing concerns in the Australian community about the exploitation of vulnerable workers, particularly migrant workers and workers in the franchise sector.73 In October 2016, the Australian government established a cross-agency “Migrant Workers’ Taskforce” as part of the government’s commitment to tackle the exploitation of vulnerable migrant workers.74
In most Australian states and territories, domestic workers, including migrant domestic workers, are covered by the Fair Work Act. However, in WA, where the Act has limited scope, domestic workers employed by individuals are specifically excluded from industrial relations protection.75 This leaves domestic workers in WA with very limited protection76 as they are dependent on common law contracts for any legal rights.77 The Australian government has not ratified ILO Convention 189 concerning decent work for domestic workers, which, if ratified, would further strengthen protections for domestic workers and close critical gaps in Australia’s legal framework, such as those in WA.78 In the case of domestic workers in diplomatic households, employers are protected by diplomatic immunity which further hinders investigation by law enforcement.79 Following revelations of severe abuse of domestic workers by diplomats in Australia’s capital Canberra in 2018, unions urged the Australian government to revoke diplomatic immunity for foreign diplomats who exploit their domestic workers.80
As a result of the findings of the state of Victoria’s “Inquiry into the Labour Hire Industry and Insecure Work”, the Victorian government introduced the Labour Hire Licensing Bill 2017 in December 2017, seeking to protect labour hire workers from being exploited and underpaid. The proposed legislation will require all labour hire service providers to hold a license which can be obtained through demonstrating compliance with workplace and labour hire laws, as well as minimum accommodation standards. The scheme will be run by an independent Labour Hire Licensing Authority which will monitor compliance with the scheme.81 At the time of writing, the bill had passed the First House (Legislative Assembly).82 The state of Queensland passed the Labour Hire Licensing Act 2017 in September 2017. Similar to the proposed bill in Victoria, the Act establishes a mandatory labour hire licensing scheme for operators in Queensland to protect labour hire workers from exploitation. The new legislation will commence on 16 April 2018.83 Similarly, the South Australian government also passed the Labour Hire Licensing Bill 2017, which is awaiting assent at the time of writing.84 The new state schemes clearly show the shift in prevailing attitudes about labour hire and that support for a nationally harmonised scheme has grown considerably.
Response to modern slavery in supply chains
In March 2013, then Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a new government strategy to revise the Commonwealth’s procurement arrangements and guidelines to ensure they assist in identifying and addressing slavery in supply chains.85 The subsequent Abbott government expressed support for this idea but to do date it is unclear what action has been taken to progress this.86 In March 2017 the Australian government published the new Commonwealth Procurement Rules (CPRs) which replaced the 2014 version.87 One of the new amendments in the 2017 CPRs is Clause 10.18, which requires that officials must make reasonable enquiries to consider the tenderer’s practices regarding labour regulations and ethical employment practices.88 However, the new clause does not specifically mention modern slavery or human trafficking. The final report on Establishing an Australian Modern Slavery Act by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade recommended introducing a new requirement to ensure the Australian government act as a model leader and procure goods and services only from businesses that comply with the modern slavery reporting requirement.89 This is reflected in the New South Wales Modern Slavery Act. Under Article 25, the new independent Commissioner will monitor the effectiveness of due diligence procedures in place to ensure that the procurement of goods and services by government agencies are not the product of modern slavery.90
Business supply chains
In 2014, the Australian government launched the “National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking and Slavery” which established the Supply Chains Working Group.102 The Working Group has since been dissolved but its unpublished work was referred to by the government when it announced that it would strengthen its response to human trafficking and slavery, which also triggered the establishment of a parliamentary inquiry into establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia.103 In February 2017, the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade began its inquiry into establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia.104 In August 2017, the government announced they will introduce legislation that will require large businesses to report annually on their actions taken to address modern slavery.105 The government has proposed that the Modern Slavery in Supply Chains Reporting Requirement should apply to organisations that have a total annual revenue of no lower than AU$100 million and that are headquartered or have any part of their operations in Australia. It is estimated the reporting requirement would therefore concern about 2,000 organisations. The government is also considering providing a free, publicly accessible central repository where all modern slavery statements would be listed and a list of businesses that are required to report. The Attorney-General’s Department (now Department of Home Affairs) held a national consultation process with business and civil society to refine the legislative model proposed by the government.106 The Australian government has committed to introduce a modern slavery bill to Parliament by mid-2018 with the aim to pass legislation by end of 2018.107
The 2018 New South Wales Modern Slavery Act also includes supply chain transparency provisions, requiring commercial organisations with an annual turnover of AU$50 million to release annual statements on the actions they are taking to ensure their goods and services are not a product of supply chains in which modern slavery is taking place. The threshold is lower than the AU$100 million proposed by the national legislation. The legislation states that statements may include details on the organisation’s structure, its due diligence processes, any risks related to modern slavery, and any training available to employees. Failure to release a statement, not making it publicly available, or providing misleading information each have penalties of up to 10,000 penalty points108, or AU$1.1 million per infringement.109 The legislation also includes a central repository for housing statements produced by commercial entities under these provisions.110
The Australian government also launched the Bali Process Government and Business Forum in August 2017. This business-government initiative was developed to encourage cooperative efforts in the Indo-Pacific region to combat modern slavery and human trafficking.111 The forum brought together business leaders and government officials to examine how government and business can best work together to develop effective strategies and policies to prevent and respond to this crime. The key priority areas included ethical recruitment, transparency in supply chains, incentives, and safeguard and redress mechanisms. Strategies for action will be suggested and discussed at the next Bali Process Conference in August 2018.112
The government of Australia should:
- Pass the proposed national Modern Slavery Act by end of 2018.
- Ratify ILO Convention 189 on Domestic Workers.
- Extend the Fair Work Act to cover all workers in all states so that domestic workers have full access to legal rights and remedies under Australian law.
Improve victim support
- Permanently unlink support pathways for forced marriage victims from mandatory engagement with law enforcement.
- Implement a support services model that is tailored to the specific needs of individuals impacted by or facing forced marriage, including social and accommodation support services.
- Ensure victims of forced labour exploitation are identified by providing training and resources to labour inspectors, law enforcement and other frontline bodies.
Strengthen coordination and transparency
- Establish a national Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner as part of the proposed Modern Slavery Act.
Address risk factors
- Ensure exploited workers in diplomatic households have safe and supported means to escape by establishing mandatory orientation sessions and subsequent health and welfare checks as a means to monitor the working conditions of those domestic workers.
- Introduce a federally harmonised labour hire licensing scheme for labour hire companies operating in sectors where vulnerability of workers is known to be high (e.g. horticulture, meat processing and cleaning industries), similar to the schemes in Queensland, Victoria, and South Australia.
- Ensure that intermediaries that facilitate employment and visas for foreign migrant workers coming to Australia, such as migration brokers and agents, are effectively regulated and monitored.
Eradicate modern slavery from the economy
- Introduce a free, publicly accessible central repository where all modern slavery statements would be listed as part of the business reporting requirement of the proposed Modern Slavery Act.
- Ensure the Modern Slavery Act includes provisions that subjects the Australian government to the same reporting requirements as private businesses.
- Design and deliver mandatory training for procurement officers which should also cover identifying the risk of modern slavery in supply chains and taking appropriate measures to address this issue where necessary.