Australia cracks down on modern-day slavery

Govt considers anti-slavery statement for big firms, having independent commissioner

When he was 26 and starting out as a boxer in the Philippines, Mr Czar Amonsot received an offer that he thought he could not refuse.

He and four other boxers were approached by a Filipino-Australian man and offered flights to Australia and full-time boxing opportunities.

"He was telling us a good story about life in Australia," Mr Amonsot told The Straits Times.

"There were a lot of good promises. Of course we were willing to do it."

When they arrived in Sydney, they discovered that the promise of boxing work and money was a ruse.

The five Filipinos were housed in a garage and forced to do manual tasks seven days a week for the man's extended family.

Their passports were kept by the man and they received no pay.

"We became slaves at their house," said Mr Amonsot, now 32. "We didn't have money. We couldn't go out. We didn't know what to do or where to go."

After about two months, the man kicked Mr Amonsot out of the house and he eventually found help from a congregant at his local church. The four others also found refuge and started new lives.

Mr Amonsot, now an Australian boxing champion, said he was able "to move on" but is saddened when he recalls the ordeal.

Such cases are sadly unexceptional in Australia, where there are estimated to be more than 4,300 modern slaves, including trafficked and coerced workers.

Victims in Australia include many who entered the country as tourists or on work or spouse visas and were forced by criminal syndicates into unpaid work or prostitution.

According to federal government data, some of the main foreign nationalities of victims have been Indian, Filipino, Thai and Afghan.

In response, the government has launched a crackdown on modern slavery, including proposed legislation to force companies to produce an annual anti-slavery statement to show that their operations and supply chains are not relying on exploited labour or trafficking.

The measures would cover companies with annual revenues of more than A$100 million (S$108.2 million).

The Justice Minister, Mr Michael Keenan, said the measures would help large businesses share information about their efforts to combat slavery. "It will support the business community to respond more effectively to modern slavery and raise business awareness of the issue," he said in a statement last month.

Separately, a federal parliamentary committee has backed the introduction of a Modern Slavery Act for Australia, based on similar legislation introduced in Britain in 2015.

An interim report by the committee last month also recommended creating the position of an independent anti-slavery commissioner.

The commissioner's role would include overseeing the reporting of efforts to stamp out slavery in supply chains.

An expert on slavery and trafficking law, Professor Jennifer Burn from the University of Technology Sydney, said she supported the anti-slavery statement proposal, but believed companies should be penalised - potentially with fines - if they did not publish it.

Prof Burn, the director of the Anti-Slavery Australia centre, said more should be done to oversee employers in areas or visa schemes where there have been known problems. "I'd like to see more prevention and protection, so that there is awareness around knowing how to contact support or police," she told The Straits Times.

The precise number of modern slaves across Australia is difficult to assess, particularly as many victims are afraid to come forward because they fear it may affect their residency status.

In recent years, there have been growing numbers of media reports on cases of modern slavery in farms, convenience stores, restaurants and fast-food outlets.

In February, two Taiwanese men were ordered to be deported after they ran two "slave houses" in Brisbane, with about 24 workers. The workers were allegedly forced to work at a fraudulent call centre targeting Chinese citizens.

The national manager of The Salvation Army's Freedom Partnership to End Modern Slavery, Ms Jenny Stanger, said those planning to work in Australia on a temporary visa should be careful, especially if English is not their first language.

"If you have been offered an opportunity that maybe sounds too good to be true, people need to be careful," she told The Straits Times.

"It is a good idea to know who you can call on for help if what you came for does not materialise."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2017, with the headline 'Australia cracks down on modern-day slavery'. Print Edition | Subscribe