What Does Modern Slavery Look Like?

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What Does Modern Slavery Look Like?

Modern slavery can be found in every part of our globalised world today. The International Labour Organization estimates that 40.3 million individuals are living in modern slavery, with individuals being exploited for forced labour, sexual exploitation, forced criminality, domestic servitude, and forced marriage. Countries with weak rule of law, lower economic wealth, and those affected by conflict often report higher rates of modern slavery. However, economically developed countries like Australia also play a significant role in perpetuating modern slavery. Human rights violations are taking place at an alarming rate in these countries and within their global supply chains. In this article, we take a look at modern slavery in Australia and what we can do to change things for the better.


Who are Australia’s modern slaves?

Modern slavery is often hidden in plain sight. Individuals experiencing modern slavery often work because they are being controlled, coerced or threatened and feel like they have no choice over where they work and how they live. Everyday people you may see, like backpackers, cleaners, cafe workers, and people in homes and factories, could all be experiencing slavery in one form or the other.


Estimates from Australia’s anti-slavery organisation Walk Free show that over 15000 individuals are currently experiencing slave-like conditions in Australia. Getting exact numbers is challenging as many modern slavery crimes go undetected. Reports from the Australian Federal Police indicate that no particular group or demographic is more at risk than any other. There have been cases of men, women, children, migrants, and citizens all experiencing human rights violations in some form or the other.

debt bonded

Abdul’s story – exploitation in the construction industry

Life in Indonesia’s construction industry is tough, with low wages and poor work conditions. Even with 15 years of experience, Abdul, a building worker, struggled to support his family. He knew he would not get better-paid work in Indonesia and saw a bleak future ahead for his children, whose education he just could not afford.


Abdul had heard that other countries offered better pay and working conditions for construction labourers. So when an international employment company visited his workplace, Abdul felt excited and hopeful. He was interviewed and offered a tradesperson job with Visa sponsorship by an Australian construction labour contractor, who promised accommodation in Canberra, decent wages, and time off on weekends. So Abdul moved to Australia hoping that he would work for a few years, earn enough to safeguard his family’s future, and then return home.


Unfortunately, the reality for Abdul was very different. He found himself living on his boss’s rural property with other foreign workers in cramped conditions. A van drove the workers to and from work each day, and they had no opportunity to leave the property at other times. Abdul worked six days a week for a measly $250. Worse, his boss deducted a further $100 for accommodation and food and to cover the cost of his weekly call to his family in Indonesia. Abdul also had to perform odd jobs on the property for no pay on his one day off.


Abdul had no access to information about working conditions and fair pay rates in Australia. There was no one he could talk to about the problems he faced at work. He was systematically isolated, exploited and taken advantage of.


Jai’s story – slavery in the food industry

Jai is a qualified chef from India who heard stories about the opportunities for a decent job and a good salary for chefs in Australia. He accepted a chef position in a Sydney restaurant with his new boss agreeing to organise his working visa and cover flight and accommodation costs. Jai was looking forward to an exciting career and improved lifestyle in Australia.


Unfortunately, that’s not how it turned out for Jai. His new boss confiscated his passport and forced him to work from 8 am until midnight with limited breaks and food. He also refused to pay Jai until he worked off the cost of the visa, flight, and board. Unfortunately, Jai was not provided with any accommodation either. Instead, his boss forced him to sleep on the premises and locked him in the storeroom every night with no bathroom facilities.


How can Australian companies prevent modern slavery?

The above incidents are not isolated cases. Even your company could be working with suppliers and smaller organisations that practice modern slavery. Some practical ways you can take action include:


  • Have a clear policy that states your company’s opposition to forced labour and other forms of slavery, both among suppliers and in its own operations.
  • Use frameworks published by the International Labour Organization to develop risk assessment criteria for your vendors and contractors.
  • Include clauses in your contracts with vendors and suppliers asking them to refrain from modern slavery practices and prevent it in their own supplier chain.
  • Find due diligence partners that can assess your vendors and suppliers with appropriate background checks and on-site visits.
  • Train employees on how to recognise and report modern slavery incidents they may observe while working with vendor partners.


What signs of modern slavery should your employees be looking for?

Anti-Slavery Australia is a specialist legal practice, policy, and research centre committed to abolishing modern slavery in Australia. It has published some criteria that anyone can watch for and take action to help somebody who needs it. These include:


  • Abusive working or living conditions.
  • Excessive work hours or the inability to end the employment
  • Living at the workplace or another place controlled by the employer
  • Violence, threat or coercion
  • Controlled freedom of movement through excessive monitoring, guarding, or confinement.
  • Geographic, linguistic, or social isolation.
  • Underpayment, no payment or other withholding of wages.
  • Bondage through the withholding of travel or other important documents.
  • Debt bondage or labour forcing as repayment or security of an inflated debt.



People end up trapped in modern slavery because they are vulnerable, often as a result of poverty and exclusion. Unscrupulous groups take advantage of these external circumstances and trick people into taking risky decisions resulting in their exploitation. The Australian police are now becoming aware of the different types of forced labour and taking action. However, this can be difficult, as slavery victims are too terrified and economically disadvantaged to take legal action against perpetrators.


Hence, putting a stop to forced labour here in Australia requires workers in all professions to know what modern slavery looks like. A start has been made with the Modern Slavery Act, which requires larger companies to check their supply chains and confirm they are slavery-free. But more still needs to be done, and freeing Australia from slavery should be everyone’s business now.