Australia’s Responses To Slavery Here And Abroad Are Admirable. They’re Also Inadequate.


Despite our best efforts, slavery around the world is growing, not declining writes Matthew Clarke.

Raman’s grandfather was lured to work in a rice mill with a small loan. He thought he could repay the loan through his labour, but it was a trap. He earned pennies every day, barely enough for food to keep him physically able to work.

The owner threatened and physically abused the workers, and added exorbitant interest to the alleged loans so they could never leave. He bragged openly about his profitable strategy, laughing as he explained: “The debt keeps accumulating… That is how I [have]run the business for 25 years now.” *

Raman’s story illustrates a massive global problem, with an estimated 40 million slaves in the world today. These slaves endure ongoing sexual abuse, labour exploitation, forced marriage and child conscription into military forces.

Although millions of dollars are spent each year on anti-slavery measures, the problem is not going away. We need to conscientiously rethink the anti-slavery game plan, for the current strategies are failing.

As I have noted in three recent articles here on New Matilda, we in Australia cannot consider ourselves innocent. There may be over 4,000 slaves in our own backyard, with recent examples in call centres, forced underage marriage, and in our fresh food industry. We contribute to the demand side through our wasteful use of cheap clothing, though sex “tourism” and through online sexual abuse of children.

In the year between July 2016 and June 2017, the Australian Federal Police received 138 referrals regarding trafficking and slavery, and between 2004 and June 2017 there have been 20 convictions.


Uncovering the horror

For the most part, modern slavery lies hidden from public gaze and consequently it takes dedicated research to uncover and measure the extent of the horror. Australia has done well to assist in tracking and documenting modern slavery.

The Walk Free Foundation, with funding from Andrew Forrest, has undertaken some of the world’s best measurements of the prevalence of slavery.

Academic groups such as Anti-Slavery Australia at the University of Technology, Sydney have sought to protect the human rights of trafficked and enslaved people, and to promote policy change. Under the leadership of Professor Jennifer Burn, the UTS group hosts an online public training program, which I thoroughly recommend. Last year they published the detailed report Behind the screens to document Australia’s response to the issue of online child exploitation.

Anti-Slavery Australia has also created My Blue Sky, a helpful resource to raise awareness of forced marriage and to provide assistance for victims in Australia.

But it is not enough.


Our part in a global response

Raman’s father inherited the debt from the grandfather. Raman inherited the debt from his father. When Raman was in fourth grade, the owner of the rice mill decided he was strong enough to carry the heavy sacks of rice. He was forced to drop out of school and start working.

There is no country in the world where slavery is legal. So how can these practices continue?

Australia supports numerous international agreements and processes whose aim is to eradicate slavery:

Australia is also a signatory to the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG), one of which, Target 8.7, mandates that we “take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms”.

But it is not enough.


Modern slavery and Australian legislation

The Australian parliament has recently considered legislation to strengthen our responses to cybersex trafficking. Inquiries by both the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade (see a summary of their recommendations here) and Parliamentary Joint Committee on Law Enforcement have resulted in recommendations to establish a Modern Slavery Act.

They also recommend that the government audits all its supply chains to ensure that public money is not being paid to suppliers who depend on slave labour, and propose an independent anti-slavery commissioner. This Act is currently being drafted and according to Alex Hawke (Assistant Minister for Home Affairs) should be presented to parliament within the next few months.

Similar legislation has already been tabled in NSW.

In the light of Australia’s commitment there should be no partisan wrangling about such legislation. Any party or politician who objects to the well-considered recommendations of those committees is clearly part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

The solution to modern slavery is a complex matter. It will require legal changes, and perhaps tougher penalties. It will require a well-resourced police force to investigate reports of slavery and public prosecutors to ensure that the laws are properly enforced. It will require a disruption to the dynamics of supply and demand, which could be initiated by the effective auditing of supply chains.

But all that will not be enough.


The religious response to slavery

Trapped inside the rice mill, Raman married and had four children. Just like he had inherited the life of slavery from his father, Raman feared that his children were destined to carry on this generational bondage. Raman later said he felt like a “silent spectator” of his own life — a monotonous cycle of 18-hour days spent picking, boiling, raking and bagging rice. He learned to resign himself and his dreams that his children might play or go to school: “We had no other choice but to continue working.”

In this case, however, a Christian group called International Justice Mission discovered that the owner of this rice mill was operating his business using forced labour — modern-day slavery. Working with local government authorities, IJM helped rescue Raman and 34 other men, women and children who were slaves in the mill.

Nobody should be surprised that religious organisations lead the way in anti-slavery work. As institutions, religious groups have an ambiguous history of moral leadership, but human flourishing has always been a central motif. Religious commitments to freedom and the dignity of each person are reflected in initiatives like these:

That’s not to say the same values are not or cannot be held and promoted by people without religious motives. It is simply to note that for many, their active opposition to slavery is deeply motivated and informed by their faith.

But it is not enough.


Non-religious NGOs

There are also non-governmental, not-for-profit anti-slavery groups operating without any explicit religious framework.

Most of these organisations depend on private donations from their various constituencies. An alternative to that funding model is to run a profitable business and channel the profits to anti-slavery work. The Freedom Hub café in Sydney exemplifies that kind of sustainable social enterprise.

But it is not enough.


Locking the bad guys away?

After his release, Raman settled in the same village near the rice mill. A slave all his life, he had nowhere else to go. He has since emerged as a strong community leader, standing up so others can be free.

Meanwhile, after complex investigations and two trials, the slave owner was eventually sentenced to five years in prison.

Cases like Raman’s pull at our moral sensitivities and – I hope – push each of us to both think differently and act differently.

I hear a common assumption that if we could just put all the bad guys in jail, the problem would be solved. And I hear another piece of wishful thinking that rests its hope on the deterrence of harsher laws.

Real and sustainable change, however, will not be effected by the threat of punishment, nor even by locking all the perpetrators away, but by a groundswell of changed hearts. I mean changed hearts of all who profit from slavery – slave owners, traffickers, as well as those who turn a blind eye to forced marriage, who buy cheap clothing that comes from forced labour in sweat shops, who think that the online sexual exploitation of children is victimless, who manage global enterprises that manipulate labour markets for profit, and who close their ears to the cries of the most vulnerable.

Before you comment about my naivety or my moralistic attitude, please hear what I am and am not saying. I agree that economic and structural factors – the level of poverty in the world and the neoliberal approach to supply and demand – pre-dispose the global system to labour exploitation and I agree that the auditing of supply chains is an important way to contain the problem.

I agree that law enforcement and incarceration are needed to protect people from those who would enslave them.

But there is an underlying problem of violence that comes from deep within the human psyche. Imposed constraints and punishment will not heal that deep disease.

Heal the disease, and the symptoms – exploitation, abuse and slavery – will go away. But if you combat just the symptoms, the disease will find another outlet to exploit, abuse and enslave in some new form that will be even harder to eradicate.

While we should celebrate the work Australians are doing to end slavery – the improvements to federal laws, the international co-operation of our police force, the organisations (however varied their ideologies) that lobby, raise awareness, rescue and restore – we cannot abdicate responsibility. It does not serve the end goal if you and I leave the task to someone else.

What’s more, in terms of eradicating slavery, all the efforts so far are ineffective. On the contrary, estimates of the number of slaves in the world have been increasing. Part of that increase is because we have improved the measurement processes and uncovered more slavery that may have been there all along. But although some studies show a decrease in slavery in narrow areas following intervention, there is no broad research that would encourage us to think the tide has turned.

In 2016 there were less than 15,000 prosecutions for offences related to slavery globally and only 9,071 convictions – a mere handful compared to the 40 million victims.

There is a lot more to do, and it won’t be simply scaling up what we have already been doing.

Please post some comments below about what else you think could be done. In a future article I will take those thoughts and compare them to the ingredients I think will be essential.

Ending slavery is complex and we need to look beyond a quick fix. The Ramans of the world are waiting for us.

* Details of Raman are drawn from a real case reported by International Justice Mission.

Matthew C. Clarke's career crosses academic, commercial and not-for-profit boundaries, specialising in the human impact of technology. Operating within the Christian peace-making tradition, Matthew has supported the work of justice and restoration particularly in the areas of slavery and poverty, through grass-roots community development and conflict resolution. He has post-graduate qualifications in cognitive science, science education and theology, and currently works as Senior Ministry Intelligence Analyst with the international development agency Compassion Australia.