In recent years the Australian government has devoted significant resources to combating human trafficking, both in Australia and in South-East Asia and has made changes to our legal framework to bring it into line with international law. However, research at the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) reveals that significant numbers of trafficked persons in Australia are still slipping through the cracks, and that Australia lags behind as far as effective protection of human rights is concerned.
Trafficking is a complex and global problem. Under the international definition, it involves the deliberate movement of persons from one place to another into a situation of serious exploitation. Where the person is an adult, this movement is facilitated by force, deception or abuse of power.
This definition, which the Australian government has more or less followed in our criminal code, means that trafficking can occur into any sector or industry, that it can happen to men, women and children, and that exploitation may take a number of forms from slavery, to forced labour or debt bondage, to sexual exploitation.
In research for the report, Collateral Damage: The Impact of Anti-Trafficking Measures on Human Rights Around the World, released this month, GAATW found that most trafficked people were intending to migrate for what they believed would be better opportunities overseas, based on promises made to them by recruiters. But when they arrive here, they find either that the work they are asked to do is not what they expected, or that the conditions of work are much worse than they were led to believe.
They are effectively forced to work in a form of modern slavery. Abuse happens mainly in informal work sectors, where turnover is high and scrutiny low, for example construction, agriculture, manufacturing or hospitality, or the sex industry, to workers who are vulnerable by virtue of their legal status, language, education, age, gender or a range of other factors. Wherever it occurs, such abuse can be deeply psychologically damaging, destroying self-esteem and trust.
Australian authorities estimate that less than 100 people are trafficked into Australia each year, but their focus has been almost exclusively on the sex industry. Gender and racial stereotyping of possible victims has had negative consequences for sex workers, due to repeated raids of premises and the harassment of women of Asian appearance. Outreach workers say that it has pushed those who are in more vulnerable situations further underground and thus has negated some of the positive effects of decriminalising the sex industry, such as improving labour conditions and work safety.
Another consequence of this disproportionate focus means that other trafficked workers are not being identified. The government and law enforcement agencies have acknowledged only one or two isolated cases of severe exploitation in other industries as being trafficking cases, and only after pressure from human rights groups. Trade unions, meanwhile, have reported to GAATW and the media many cases of exploitation of migrant workers.
A number of these cases involved abuses of men and women in Australia under the 457 visa scheme. Although this visa, for highly skilled foreign workers, secures some protection by affording legal status and a right to minimum labour standards, the system of tying a worker to a particular employer leaves them with little bargaining power or recourse should labour standards not be met.
In informal sectors where there is little scrutiny of work conditions, the situation is ripe for exploitation to occur and cases have been reported of workers being deceived, exploited, held in debt bondage, threatened by employers and in some cases trafficked. On reporting their employers to immigration, invariably the worker was threatened with deportation instead of their claims being investigated.
And what of those people identified by authorities as having been trafficked into Australia? GAATW’s research has found that Australia’s prioritising of a criminal justice response to trafficking is failing to guarantee the protection of human rights, and in some cases may be harming people even further.
A serious concern is that assistance to those identified as having been trafficked, such as medical care, counselling, emergency food or accommodation - assistance that may be essential for the person to recover from their trauma and move onto a new life - is not automatically given in Australia. Rather, it is made conditional on the person co-operating with law enforcement to prosecute the trafficker.
If the victim is afraid of co-operating because of very real risks of retaliation from the traffickers, if she or he does not have sufficient information, if the trafficker has absconded or the prosecution does not go ahead with the case for any reason, then the trafficked person’s status changes from victim of crime to illegal migrant, with the victim simply placed in immigration detention and deported. Those who are detained even end up with a bill for the costs of their detention, intended to act as a deterrent to them (and others) from “illegally migrating” to Australia again.