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Slavery is a bigger problem now than when it was ‘abolished’ - and it's happening here

Business and Human Rights

A diverse group of leaders from the Australian business community, civil society, the religious community and academia has released a Statement of Support for the development of legislation to combat Modern Slavery. The Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow is encouraging organisations from across sectors to endorse the Statement to show leadership on this critical issue.

Here is his opinion pieced published online by ABC News.


Slavery. The word conjures images of people in leg irons. We think of the abolitionists who toiled centuries ago in lands far away to abolish this horrific practice.

Yet two things should shock us. First, slavery is more common today than when it was ‘abolished’. In fact, there are more slaves now than at any time in human history.

Secondly, our region – the Asia Pacific – is home to about half of the world’s 45.8 million slaves.

Slavery is grounded in human exploitation, just as it has always been. The difference is that modern slavery now has numerous different forms: human trafficking, servitude, child labour, sex trafficking, forced labour and debt bondage.

Sadly, there are all too many examples of labour-hire companies bringing vulnerable workers from Indonesia and other Pacific neighbours to Australia on the promise of a good job with good pay and conditions. When they arrive, their passport is often confiscated by their employer and they’re paid a fraction of what they were promised.

Just as slavery helped drive the economy of William Wilberforce’s era, modern slavery is fuelled by growing consumer demand for cheaper goods and services. The fact that slavery can be hidden deep inside multi-national supply chains blinds us to its presence and can make us all unwitting enablers.

Even where the exploitation occurs overseas, we can still be affected in Australia. For instance, an infamous case from 2015 involved the company, Thai Union, using forced child labour to peel prawns that were destined for Australian supermarkets.

In this way, modern slavery distorts global markets, undermines human rights and the rule of law, and causes immeasurable suffering to victims and their families.

While slavery happens primarily offshore, Australia is not immune. While modern slavery is rarely identified and widely underreported, it is estimated that over 4,300 people are living in modern slavery in Australia today.

But change is afoot. The Australian Government has committed to introducing a law to tackle modern slavery and is currently consulting on a requirement for large companies to investigate and report on modern slavery in their supply chains.

The aim is to support the business community to respond more effectively to modern slavery with a view to making global supply chains more responsible and transparent. Transparency will also help the rest of us to understand what was involved in creating the products that we buy. This, in turn, will allow Australian consumers to make more informed decisions about where we spend our money. 

To date, police and law enforcement have been responsible for stopping modern slavery. Clearly, our criminal law has an important role in prohibiting the worst forms of exploitation, identifying offenders and bringing them to justice. But our criminal justice system can’t do all the heavy lifting.

Corporate vigilance is essential in the fight against modern slavery. Government and the business community need to join with civil society in working cooperatively to address this significant human rights issue.

Today, at the annual Australian Dialogue on Business and Human Rights, a group of Australian leaders will launch a public Statement of Support for an Australian Modern Slavery Act. This Statement is significant because it brings together a diverse group of leaders from the Australian business community, civil society, the religious community and academia.

The Statement calls for the introduction of an Australian Modern Slavery Act, underpinned by principles of transparency, accountability, victim support and leadership. The Statement calls on government to be practical and pragmatic, while remaining ambitious. Indeed, this is the only way that real change can take place.

In developing this Statement, the Australian Human Rights Commission has sought to unite stakeholders with very different perspectives. And so it is that signatories include UNSW, Ausbil, WEstjutice, The Freedom Partnership, Anti-Slavery Australia and Uniting Church in Australia (Synod of Victoria and Tasmania).

By introducing modern slavery legislation, Australia can establish itself as a global leader in the fight against modern slavery. The approach favoured by the Government would give business some flexibility in how they respond to this problem. This is an opportunity to work cooperatively to address the modern incarnation of an ancient problem.

Edward Santow is Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner.

Published in ABC News online