July 21, 2009
Story by: Wenee Yap
Video by: Anti-Slavery Project and Iris Pictures
Advocacy groups, NGOs, government, unions and academics united to address the critical issue of labour trafficking at the second annual Anti-Slavery Project Trafficking Forum on Tuesday. In this very successful event, representatives addressed the fine line between the substandard working conditions of a bad employer and crimes of slavery, trafficking, debt bondage and forced labour.
"This distinction can be difficult to discern, yet the distinction is critical," said Associate Professor Jennifer Burn, Director of the Anti-Slavery Project at UTS. The Anti-Slavery Project, dedicated to addressing all forms of slavery and trafficking, is a unique legal service for people who have experienced trafficking and slavery and a major voice in Australia’s complex legal and political debate over trafficking, labour trafficking and human rights. "A key challenge has emerged - to find the difference between criminal offences of slavery, trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage, and substandard working conditions," said Associate Professor Burn.
The Anti-Slavery Project screened a video at the forum, produced by the Anti-Slavery Project with Brynn O’Brien, lawyer at the Anti-Slavery Project and Iris Pictures to help draw attention to the difficulties in identifying trafficking when there is often no clear single indicator of trafficking, rather a complex set of conditions.
Labour trafficking, according to Professor Susan Kneebone, Deputy Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University, is a world problem, driven by the push/pull factors between rich and poor nations. "Today, 200 million people live outside their home countries because they can’t earn a decent living at home." While she agrees that it is the primary responsibility of states to protect those within their region, she stressed that "we all need to work together to protect the rights of migrant workers - rights which already exist at international law. Human rights standards and labour standards should be mutual."
Recent government changes to the trafficking visa framework have seen a shift towards 'softer' anti-trafficking methods focusing on supporting victims and educating them on their legal rights. Indeed, the ASP Labour Trafficking Forum follows hot on the heels of the Commonwealth Government's June 2009 announcement of changes to its Support for Victims of People Trafficking Program. In particular, support for victims has been extended from 30 to 45 days and is no longer conditional on whether a victim is willing to assist police with an investigation. Under the changes, permanent residence will be available earlier to victims of trafficking who make a contribution to an investigation or prosecution. Previously victims were uncertain about the visa outcomes and often waited years for a determination about their eligibility for protection in Australian law. Importantly, those offered permanent residence will be able to bring their immediate family to Australia too. These changes are significant and reflect human rights obligations.
The identification of trafficked people depends on the production of good quality multi-lingual information about trafficking and how to identify trafficking. The use of multi-lingual information to inform communities is an approach supported by Elena Jeffreys, President of Scarlett Alliance, an association of Australian sex workers. Her organisation, linked with similar initiatives all over the world, supported the SIREN project in 1992, in which migrant workers wrote and produced their own information and advice on their legal rights.
The final session of the day addressed vulnerabilities in particular communities, with presentations by Asian Women at Work, Migrante and Unite. According to the speakers, Jane Corpuz-Brock (Migrante Australia), Amity Lynch & Bich Thuy Pham (Fairwear) and Liz Thompson (Unite), migrant women and student visa holders are particularly vulnerable to labour exploitation. Said Associate Professor Jennifer Burn: "Substandard working conditions are part of a continuum that may lead to forced labour and slavery. Such exploitation highlights the need for the development of clear legal and policy approaches developed with a whole range of community and government organisations to identify areas of concern and to develop preventative and protective strategies".