Busting myths: modern slavery

Let’s bust some common myths and misperceptions to better understand modern slavery in the 21st century.

Myth 1: Slavery is a thing of the past

Modern slavery exists today, and it exists in many forms. From bonded labour (debt bondage) to forced marriage – modern slavery continues to exist in all forms, based on the forced exploitation of men, women, and children.

In 2016, it was estimated that 40.3 million people were living in modern slavery with 71% of those in modern slavery being female.  The present reality of modern slavery around the world exists in our everyday lives, from the clothing we wear to the seafood we eat.

Case study: Alyin*

Today, Alyin’s extremely proud of what she’s achieved in just one year. She’s completed her certificate in Aged Care, found a job, and built herself a support network through the church where she volunteers and is a valued member of. 

Just a year earlier her life looked very different. She’d done one of the bravest things anyone can do, and left a violent relationship with her ex-partner, whom she had been forced to marry. She has no other family in Australia and received threats from her ex-partner and his family. Back home, her family were also threatened by her ex-partner's family over not receiving their marriage dowry back after she left the marriage. 

Her story reflects the complex issues that people – particularly young women – experiencing forced marriage face. Forced marriages often occur as families face pressure to maintain cultural and traditional standards that don’t allow young women to make their own decisions for their future, including whom and when to marry. Leaving or refusing to go through with a forced marriage can have consequences for both them and their families.  

After leaving, Alyin faced homelessness, had medical issues that needed addressing, and feared that COVID-19 would make it difficult to find work. Red Cross worked alongside other service providers to help Alyin feel safe and make a fresh start. 

By supporting Alyin with secure accommodation, connecting her with medical services, and helping her to reach her study and work goals, she’s on a path to a better and brighter future. Her achievements speak to her remarkable resilience, strength, and determination to make a better life for herself. 

Myth 2: Slavery always involves violence

Modern slavery is when coercion, threats or deception are used to exploit individuals and deprive them of their freedom. In mainstream media and television, it’s common for crimes of modern slavery (such as human trafficking) to include violence. While physical violence is often used, it isn’t necessary to commit modern slavery.

Case study: Flynn*

Flynn came to Australia as a student with support from his family and lived with a family member already in Australia. Unfortunately, Flynn was exploited by the family member he lived with who forced him to work with no pay. He was entirely dependent on the family member who denied him food and access to a phone.

When he was allowed access to a phone, his family back home didn’t believe the things he told them about his circumstances. After another relative went through a similar experience, Flynn made a report to the Australian Federal Police about the abuse he experienced and was connected with Red Cross for casework support.

After 14 months of support, Flynn has secure housing and is extremely proud to have recently become an Australian citizen. He runs his own successful business and is a testament to how with support, people like Flynn can thrive.

Myth 3: Trafficking and slavery usually involve sexual exploitation

Modern slavery crimes and human trafficking do not always involve sexual exploitation. Globally, forced labour is one of the main reasons people are trafficked, and is unfortunately a common reason people are trafficked in Australia. Many migrants, refugees, and people seeking asylum come to Australia not knowing their rights and entitlements as workers and become targets for others to take advantage of.

Case study: Alec*

Forced labour is an experience Alec knows all too well. After arriving in Australia in 2017, he worked on a farm in Victoria where he was exploited. He was unclear on what sort of visa he was on, and what his rights were. Without support, and efforts by government, law enforcement, and community organisations to find and put a stop to exploitative workplaces, it’s difficult for people like Alec to escape these situations. 

Alec received ongoing casework support from Red Cross and his life has come full circle. He and his partner have moved to a new home, he’s earned his licence and bought a car, and he’s found full-time work where he is happy and respected.

Myth 4: Forced labour only happens in the developing world

Forced labour happens in every country in the world. More than 1.5 million people work in slavery-like conditions in Europe, North America, Japan, and even in Australia.

The first conviction under forced labour laws enacted by the federal government in 2013 involved a couple who forced a Fijian to work as their domestic servant for eight years. They enticed her to come to an Australian capital city on a tourist vias and then took her passport from her and made her work excessive hours as a cook, nanny, maid and cleaner. They paid her $150-$250 per fortnight.

Here is another story of forced labour in Australia: A couple keeping a Tamil woman as a slave. [ABC News]

Myth 5: Forced labour isn’t a big money maker

Forced labour is huge business. An International Labour Organisation (ILO) study estimated that forced labour generates annual profits of over US$ 150 billion, which is as much as the combined profits of the four most profitable companies in the world. Global economic integration has created opportunities for exploitation with millions of people trafficked and/or exploited in search of jobs. Forced labour is most prevalent in the Asia Pacific region, but it still happens in Australia.

Case study: Forced labour on Australian farms [The Guardian]

Silas Aru came to Australia seeking a change to work and pay for his children’s education. However, he spent over six months working on different farms in Queensland being given little of no food and forced to sleep on buses on the side of the road. For six months work he was paid $150. He and other workers were abused and threatened with arrest and deportation if they asked for food, water or about their pay.

Myth 6: There isn’t much I can do to prevent trafficking and modern slavery 

Modern slavery is a complex issue, but we all have a role to play in preventing it. The first step is learning more about modern slavery, how to identify risks and how to respond.

For organisations, Red Cross has published:

Red Cross supports individuals affected by modern slavery in Australia. Learn more about the program »

If you suspect that someone is affected by modern slavery practices, you can also contact the AFP on 131 237 to discuss or report it. Contact can be made anonymously.

In an emergency and if someone is in immediate danger, always call 000 for police assistance.

* All names have been changed to protect privacy.

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