Halting modern slavery in the 21st century

Halting modern slavery in the 21st century

Monash Life | Geopolitical security | 6 minute read

We call it modern slavery, but there’s nothing modern about it. How to stop it? Monash is leading the revolution.

From forced labour and human trafficking to forced marriage and debt bondage, slavery in the 21st century can look astonishingly similar to all the forms of slavery that have gone before it. In law, the phrase ‘modern slavery’ is used to cover a range of different crimes that often intersect in messy, complex ways, making it incredibly challenging to enforce legislation preventing them.

“Modern slavery is about degrees of coercion,” says Jean Allain, Professor of International Law at Monash Data Futures Institute. “Slavery itself is very specific. Historically, you had a legal right to own somebody. With abolitionism and the 1926 Slavery Convention there were no laws that allowed for slavery. But there were none that prohibited slavery, either.”

Allain, a former Special Adviser to Anti-Slavery International, the world’s oldest international human rights organisation, and who most recently gave evidence to the International Criminal Court at the Hague, has been key in reconceptualising the definition of slavery to include de facto slavery – the notion that you don’t need to legally own a person to enslave them. “It’s about reaching a point where all countries are bound by international agreements dealing with slavery,” he says.

So, to what extent does modern slavery exist in Australia? The Global Slavery Index 2018 estimates that 15,000 people across the continent are enslaved in forced marriage, forced labour and sexual exploitation. Yet Australia’s Modern Slavery Act 2018 is largely focused on businesses, moving from Australia through supply chains to countries without strong labour rights, where issues of forced labour and actual enslavement are more likely.

The challenge is holding companies in Australia responsible. There is an attempt within Australia to have corporate social responsibility take hold, yet competition means you have to sell your widget cheaper than your rivals.”

The work of Marie Segrave, a Professor of Criminology and a Future Fellow, offers a critical take on these laws. She is concerned with reframing the idea of what a ‘victim’ looks like. “The Modern Slavery Act is really just a reporting mechanism for corporations,” says Segrave, previously a recipient of a prestigious DECRA Fellowship for research focused on unlawful migrant labour within Australia. “The Modern Slavery Act doesn’t address the conditions within which exploitation occurs.”

Maybe that’s because the messy reality is less engaging for a corporate audience – and certainly less straightforward to deal with than what the term ‘modern slavery’ evokes, which is the idea of someone who is vulnerable and has no agency. But people make choices to travel and work, including without rights, suggests Segrave. “And this impacts reporting or seeking help. Many people who are exploited, often hiding in plain sight, just want to make money and move on.”

Current Australian laws tend to criminalise the exploited, for example, deporting those with expired visas without asking questions, providing impunity for exploiters in the process. “As a global community we are significantly reliant on the low-valued labour of migrant workers, and we saw this during the pandemic,” says Seagrave. “We should be encouraging people to come forward and be safe.”

Statistics about slavery

A global malaise

It’s a global malaise, rooted, says Priya Sharma, in the fact that definitions in Malaysia and around the world on interconnected areas such as forced labour, child labour and human trafficking do not consistently match the international standard. Sharma lectures at Monash Malaysia’s School of Business, and says that Malaysian regulations need to be redrafted to include the 11 indicators of forced labour under the International Labour Organization, or there will continue to be confusion around identifying a victim and granting the right protection.

“The difficulty is also in data collection,” she says, “especially with regard to child labour, a common and often hidden practice in traditional Malaysian culture.” Malaysia was recently relegated for the second year to the lowest tier of the US Trafficking in Persons report, that country’s principal diplomatic tool to guide relations with foreign governments on human trafficking. Sharma is heartened, however, by the fact that, over the past two years, six Malaysian firms have been banned from selling their products in the United States after US Customs and Border Protection found evidence of forced labour.

Our anti-trafficking laws provide corporate liability, but they do not provide a framework with which to track forced labour across the stages of the supply chain. Forced labour trafficking is an element of modern slavery that affects the global community.”

Alongside the students she calls “our future business leaders”, Sharma is developing curriculum and collaborating with NGOs such as Project Liber8, a youth-oriented Malaysia- based organisation that is focused on shifting public perception and raising awareness of students around the issue of forced labour trafficking. “The message is starting to get through. More academics are getting involved and we are working towards trying to change laws and policy.”

Statistics about slavery

Merewyn Foran (Bachelor of Business (Business Administration), 1996), Executive Director at Hagar Australia, a Melbourne-based NGO that works with partners around the world, says that support for victims necessarily requires multiple approaches. “We see the whole journey of the whole person,” says Foran. “We don’t just work at the individual level, however, but at a systemic level to see change in the countries in which we work. Local staff work closely with communities to empower them to change their attitudes and responses to slavery and abuse.”

Hagar’s work has expanded to provide support in more vulnerable communities, such as the Livelihood Project in Afghanistan, where they have organised members of the community into business cooperatives, and in Vietnam, where the Hagar Home Credit team provides business- minded micro-loans for women, many from ethnic minorities, at risk of human trafficking.

More than 40 million people are in slavery across the globe, which is more than at any time in history,”

“People like a young girl in Vietnam who was rescued from an illegal karaoke bar in Hanoi where she had been trafficked. She joined our support program and received support and social services, including safe accommodation, emergency food, education, vocational training and psychological counselling. After more than a year of care, she returned to her hometown to build a new life, with ongoing support.”

The challenges are clear: greater transparency; specific legal definitions; re-evaluating who a ‘victim’ is; closing the gap between the immigration and the criminal justice spaces; and implementing programs that drive systemic change in vulnerable communities. Challenges which, by bringing together a range of different approaches, the Monash community is facing head-on. “Within Monash there’s a push to not only talk about modern slavery,” says Allain, “but to be one of the leaders in its own declarations, in looking at its own supply chains. We want to lead the way in a revolution in strategy, legislation and language around slavery wherever it exists.”

A Different Lens

Modern slavery

Slavery isn’t something relegated to the past. It’s happening today, and it’s happening under our noses. So how do we hold people and states responsible?

Sometimes the answer isn’t as simple as criminalizing these acts. In many cases it’s also a societal or family issue, which complicates the motivations for victims to report their situations. Join Monash experts as they ask: how do we stop the exploitation of people?