The slave trade era is remembered as a deplorable historical era, but the prevalence of human slavery is hardly a relic. In the 21st century, the shaming trade and exploitation of human beings still thrives. The modern set of economic conditions, on which slavery now rests, has arisen through the colossal pillars of capitalism and free trade.
In recent years Australia has become a destination country for victims of human trafficking. Slaves in Australia are mostly Thai, Korean and Chinese women held hostage to debt bondage in the sex industry. As of July 2013, the Australian Federal Police reported, of the suspected victims of human trafficking, 79% were women exploited in the commercial sex industry. A study in 2012 by universities of Queensland and Sydney estimates that as many as 2000 women each year are trafficked into Australia. Due to the nature of the black market industry, the nature and extent of people trafficking are grossly underreported. Nevertheless, what statistical evidence exists offers a disturbing glimpse of the extent of the problem.
Victims are lured on the condition that they pledge their personal services as security for a debt. However, their alleged debt is augmented to a ‘manifestly excessive’ amount, by which the ‘reasonable value’ of the service is not taken out of the debt. Additionally, undertakings of unsavoury accounting, and implementation of astronomical interest rates enforced by threats of violence, render the length of those services seemingly endless. The UN estimates that human traffickers earn around $10 billion a year, the average sale for the price of a slave is around $12,500 whilst operating costs such as transportation and false documents are approximately $3000. In purely economic terms, slaves are parallel to a form of short-term low capital investment, where ownership offers obscenely high rates of return.
How is this occurring?
The vulnerability of the world’s poor is a key ingredient in the manifestation of modern slavery. The disparity between the economic conditions for people in developing transitional countries, and the prosperity of Australia, creates the enticement that can bring a person into a context where enslavement is possible. It can be likened to the concept of rural-urban migration, where workers in developing countries choose to migrate on their expected outcomes—a “better life” in Australia with higher wages and the promise of a secure job. As long as the perceived ‘expected outcome’ exceeds the wage in the homeland, the hunting ground for modern slaves will persist.
The entrapment of victims is also fuelled by the demand for slaves in Australia. Anne Gallagher, a human rights lawyer, stated, “cheap labour, cheap sex and cheap goods are woven into the fabric of our economy.” The demand for trafficked women is not only determined by the inferior price. It is driven by the lack of women in Australia prepared to do prostitution, ‘customer demand’ for women seen as compliant, for women whom they can be violent towards; and the racialised idea that Asian women have certain qualities making them more subservient. The determinants of this demand are founded predominantly on stereotypes and personal preference. Therefore, trying to combat human enslavement through reducing demand is virtually unfeasible.
So, what can Australia do?
Idealistically, bringing up the income level of the majority of the world’s poor must be implemented globally to combat the frightening effect of slave trade on humanity. Addressing the issues of inequality, increased wages and opportunities will remove the vulnerabilities slave traders prey on. However, this is a challenge that is too big for any single arm of government. It will take a monumental amount of progress before citizens of the developing world stop being tempted by the prospect of a good job in a rich country.
In the short term, Australia can focus on driving up the costs of investing in slaves. Slavery is born under economic, social and political vulnerability in one part of the population, but it can only be mobilised by means of violence and the ‘right’ to exercise it with impunity. With the recent criminalisation of modernised slavery in the Commonwealth Criminal Code Act (Criminal Code) the implicit cost of trafficking has already increased. However, the issue that arises is the detection of these offences. Criminalisation of this crime type, and responses to it are recent, victims and witnesses may not yet recognise it as a crime and may not report it. Additionally, current victim protection is conditional upon cooperation with authorities. This level of support is variable, inadequate to meet the needs of uninformed victims fearing deportation and re-enslavement. In addition to aggressive legal action, stronger victim protection programs, and human rights awareness are fundamental.
Given the economically profitable nature of human slavery, Australia needs to take measures to disrupt the market forces that allow trafficking to thrive. In the short term, as the demand and supply of slaves are seemingly out of reach, law enforcement is the best mechanism Australia can undertake.
Image: ‘Human Trafficking Awareness’ by ACF HHS (https://humantraffickinghotline.org/resources/human-trafficking-public-outreach-campaigns), https://www.flickr.com/photos/acfgov/25137274187. Licence at https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/.