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More Than 45 Million People Live In Slavery In 2016

That's twice the population of Australia.

02/12/2016 5:45 AM AEDT | Updated 02/12/2016 5:45 AM AEDT
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"Two-thirds of people living in slavery are in our own neighbourhood, the Asia-Pacific region."

Christmas is upon us, with parties galore, frenzied spending, champagne flowing and volumes of seafood being consumed.

It's a fair bet most Australians won't have the issue of slavery on their mind amidst all the festivities. Yet, what if that new party dress was made from cotton harvested by slaves? And what if those prawns were caught by slaves on Thai fishing boats?

They're uncomfortable thoughts but, gosh, it's a beautiful party dress and surely we can't have Christmas without prawns!

What if it were easier to confidently purchase products free from slavery? It's time to make this a reality.

The latest Global Slavery Index, published by the Walk Free Foundation, estimates there are more than 45 million people in slavery today. That's twice the population of Australia. Two-thirds of these are in our own neighbourhood, the Asia-Pacific region.

While these figures are confronting, they give no insight into the daily misery experienced by those trapped in slavery. I have had the opportunity to hear directly what living in slavery feels like from some who have escaped. We work in Asia, helping women and children rebuild their lives after being trafficked, enslaved or abused.

Earlier this year, while visiting Cambodia, I met Sophea, who was sold into slavery at the age of 4 and endured years of hunger, hard work and constant abuse. Sophea explained, through tears, "I just wanted to be like a normal child, going to school, with loving parents".

After many unsuccessful attempts to run away, Sophea tried to commit suicide by jumping out of a high window. This image of a young girl desperately trying to end her life offers a glimpse into just how powerless, and utterly devoid of hope, slavery can make people feel.

Although injured in the fall, Sophea did not succeed in ending her life. Stories like hers are so important because they remind us that behind the staggering numbers are individual men, women and children trapped in a nightmare that, for most Australians, is hard to imagine.

Where do we begin tackling a complex, global issue like this?

We begin with the obvious: slavery is inflicted by human beings and, by its very definition, can be ended by human beings. This will require coordinated efforts from governments, companies, civil society, and individuals.

The Australian Government is taking some positive steps, leading initiatives at the global and regional levels, as well as here at home. Earlier this week, Minister for Justice Michael Keenan, announced that the Government would introduce awards for businesses that lead the way in combatting slavery.

The Government will also consider a model for large businesses to publicly report on the steps they take to prevent exploitation in their supply chains. As part of this consideration, it will monitor the implementation of the United Kingdom's Modern Slavery Act 2015, which also imposes a public reporting obligation on large companies.

These are welcome steps forward but I hope in the future it will be other countries monitoring Australia's trailblazing strategies to abolish slavery, not the other way around.

In addition to political leadership, we need business champions. We need companies with transparent, ethical supply chains that refuse to tolerate slavery and are proactive in stamping it out.

Many would argue this is not about being champions, it is simply about being responsible. In the words of Andrew Forrest: "Businesses that do not actively look for forced labour in their supply chains are standing on a burning platform"; and leaders who do not are "deluded and irresponsible".

For individuals who want to see an end to slavery, there are three practical actions we can take.

First, we can make informed choices as consumers. A growing range of resources are available to equip us in this, including Fair Trade certification, initiatives such as Oxfam's Naughty or Nice List and Baptist World Aid's Ethical Fashion Guide.

Second, we can take the time to tell our political leaders and favourite brands that we care about ending slavery and ask them what they are doing about it.

Third, we can support those who have escaped from slavery by giving to organisations that work directly with survivors. It can take years to recover from the deep trauma caused by slavery. We have now supported Sophea for 12 years.

I wish you could listen to her today. Confident. Engaging. In her final year of a social work degree at university. A passionate advocate of child rights. Volunteering with a couple of charities. Determined to help other girls like her.

On this International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, my question is this: what could you do to help turn the tide of slavery and abolish it once and for all?

As William Wilberforce once said, "you may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know".

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