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Australia's Modern Slaves Might Not Be Wearing Chains But Are Just As Trapped

Slavery exists across our region, and we can no longer look away.

When most of us think about slavery, we often think of leg irons and chains. And we think it no longer exists. After all, didn't the U.S. Civil War finally settle that argument?

We often feel a sense of historical superiority, wondering how society could have accepted such an inhumane practice stripping human beings of their most basic rights.

But there are, in fact, more people living in servitude now than at any other point in history. The Global Slavery Index estimates there are more than 45 million people who are victims of slavery right now. Of those people, more than half are likely to be women and girls.

Most of those slaves are right on Australia's doorstep, with around 30 million people thought to be living in servitude in the Asia Pacific region alone.

Here in Australia more than 350 suspected victims of trafficking and slavery have been identified since 2004. But slavery is often not as visible as it might have been in the slave trading days of the deep south of the United States.

Eliminating slavery will not happen because we are well-meaning. We need to focus, and we need to be strong.

It was during my time as a director at the Australian Human Rights Commission that I first started working to address trafficking and slavery in Australia and our region. Many well-meaning officials were absolutely blind to the phenomenon until we brought it to their attention, just after the turn of this century.

Women working as sex workers who were picked up in brothel raids across Australia and found to have irregular visa status were treated as criminals and immediately deported. Even though sex trafficking was illegal at the time. Even though the women often clearly claimed they had been trafficked against their will. And even though they would be saddled with a bondage debt they could never repay unless they gave themselves over to another brothel in Australia or elsewhere to repay the money. It was heartbreaking and infuriating.

I saw this in Australia and across South East Asia and China. It was as though officials just could not comprehend that trafficking and slavery existed. I would prefer to think it wasn't because they didn't care.

A loose coalition of women's organisations, sex worker organisations, journalists and the Australian Human Rights Commission brought the issue to government attention in Australia.

To its credit, the Australian Government recognised having one woman or man trafficked into Australia is one too many. It introduced a comprehensive legal and support scheme that has been operating since 2004 to address trafficking and slavery in Australia. While slavery has not been eliminated here, the system is set up to respond to incidents when they arise.

But we now face the same process of horrified realisation -- slavery exists across our region, and we are involved in it. Australia, as a global trading nation, has supply chains stretching across the region and employs some of the world's most vulnerable workers. As consumers we access products from clothing to cans of tuna that were likely produced by slaves.

Again, the bondage is secured not through chains and steel bars, although sometimes it is. It is more likely to be secured through debt bondage, violence, threats and coercion. Or the simple practice of removing a person's passport and identity documents in a strange land where they have no way of knowing if there is any help or where to find it.

And now, we as a nation, are being asked to respond. To drag our sights to this appalling injustice being perpetrated on the most vulnerable -- from which we are benefitting.

Normally our laws only apply in Australia. But occasionally, where particularly egregious behavior warrants it, our criminal laws and other regulations can apply offshore too. So child sex tourism by Australians is illegal under Australian law wherever it happens.

The Government's announcement of its plan to crack down on slavery in the supply chains of Australian companies is new in that it will have this offshore application. And it is absolutely welcome. The Government intends to develop a Modern Slavery Act, and is consulting about what size businesses would be covered and what the law would require them to do.

CARE Australia focuses on marginalised and poor women across the Indo-Pacific. We know slavery and bondage is a reality and we know what can be done to remove the conditions allowing it to happen. We work in factories, tea plantations and beer gardens to support women to claim decent work conditions, greater equality and respect.

I know, from my experience working in Australia and across the region, eliminating slavery will not happen because we are well-meaning. We need to focus, and we need to be strong.

We have learnt from the UK, which introduced its own Modern Slavery legislation in 2015, that merely asking companies to make a statement that they've reviewed their supply chains without requiring them to ensure the information is true, is not going to address this massive abuse of human rights. It is too entrenched to respond to polite requests.

All Australian companies with supply chains in the region should be required to take active steps to eradicate slavery. If they are big enough to trade internationally, they are big enough not to benefit from slavery and bondage.

CARE Australia, and other local and international non-government organisations can help Australian businesses to uphold Australian society's values by eliminating this scourge.

I urge the Government to be brave with this legislation, as we realise we can no longer look away.

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