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Modern Slavery, another Global Pandemic

Many believe slavery to be a thing of the past, in fact, Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 states, “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” In the 21st Century, slavery has become more subtle but remains a global problem. In 2016, at any given time, it was estimated that 40.3 million people were in modern slavery. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that there are 5.4 victims of modern slavery for every 1000 people in the world.

What is Modern Slavery?

Today victims of slavery are often exposed to coercion, threats, and deception to exploit and undermine their freedoms and human rights.

Modern Slavery includes:

  • human trafficking;

  • forced labour (all work or service which people are forced to do against their will under coercion or threats);

  • debt bondage;

  • forced marriage;

  • child labour;

  • servitude; and

  • slavery.

Women and girls are impacted the most by forced labour accounting for 99% of victims in the commercial sex industry, and 58% in other sectors. People who fall victim to modern slavery are often vulnerable and have been trapped and/or exploited which is due to poverty and exclusion from society. For some of us fortunate enough to live in a country such as Australia, modern slavery does not occupy a great deal of time in our minds. It may not be in our faces, but we often forget about the people producing the clothes we wear, manufacturing the smartphones we use, or picking the fruit we eat. Modern slavery generates $150 billion in profits a year and despite the efforts of various governments and organisations, more people fall, victim, as the global population grows.

Modern slavery is most prevalent in Africa, followed by Asia, but remains a major problem in our backyard.

Modern Slavery in Australia

In Australia, the Global Slavery Index estimated on any given day in 2016, 15,000 Australians were living in modern slavery.

The Australian Government has aimed to combat this global problem by introducing the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth) on 1 January 2019. This legislation requires large businesses and other entities to comply with reporting requirements and prepare annual Modern Slavery Statements. The Modern Slavery Statements set out the entities' actions to assess, research and address modern slavery risks within their global operations. The goal is to turn our attention to the supply chains of larger businesses. The objective being to bring awareness and identify areas where modern slavery is slipping through the cracks of global business operations. The NSW Government is currently reviewing the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (NSW) which will introduce the role of a state Anti-Slavery Commissioner while also placing requirements on businesses to annually report on modern slavery.

How many face masks do you have lying around your house? Unfortunately, some of these masks could potentially be a product of modern slavery.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a rapid increase in demand globally. The British Government was found to be importing PPE from factories in China, where it was found many North Korean women were working under a forced labour regime. In addition to this, the Australian Government is also in question as to whether they had purchased PPE from specific suppliers known to be manufacturing with forced labour. These issues emphasise the importance of transparency within the global supply chains that provide us with the everyday items and products we take for granted.

While the Australian and NSW governments aim to address the global concern of modern slavery amongst big businesses, these issues have also been recognised in some Australian households and employment relationships.

Sydney Couple Guilty of Wage Theft

The Federal Court of Australia recently found a couple guilty of wage theft for severe underpayments to their nanny. Mr. Lam and his ex-wife Ms. Tong employed a 26-year-old nanny, where she lived and worked in the couple’s CBD apartment from May 2016 to 2017. This was the employee's first job in Sydney, and she had recently moved to Sydney from the Philippines. She was a victim of exploitation from the couple due to her vulnerability to being in a new country, living with her employer, and unaware of her workplace rights.

Mr. Lam and Ms. Tong paid their employee $40,000 Philippine Pesos per month into her Philippines bank account which is the equivalent of $12,574 AUD per annum. The couple failed to pay their employee under the Miscellaneous Award 2010, while also failing to account for the weeks she was working up to 82 hours. It was agreed the couple’s nanny should have been paid the equivalent of $105,809 for that year of work. Mr. Lam admitted to underpayments of base rates, penalty rates, and failing to allow annual leave.

The Court viewed these actions as serious contraventions, and that Mr. Lam’s conduct was deliberate in hiring a nanny from overseas and failing to meet the Australian regulatory framework. The Court fined the couple a total of $37,500.

The exploitation of temporary migrants working in Australia is no new story – they have been named the ‘silent underclass’. In 2017, the Department of Immigration and Border Protections conducted research on 4,300 temporary migrants working across Australia and found that some were being paid well below the minimum wage with some of these conditions constituting forced labour.

What can we do?

The Federal and NSW Governments have both taken action in addressing issues of Modern Slavery in the global operations of large businesses across Australia. However, issues of Modern Slavery such as forced labour remains prevalent in Australian households and smaller employment relationships. It is important to be informed and aware that Modern Slavery is occurring in our backyard. In the event, you are made aware of a situation of severe underpayments, wage theft, and mistreatment of a worker or workers please contact the Fair Work Ombudsman.

At Voice Lawyers, we are committed to addressing these issues of human trafficking, forced labour, debt bondage, and all other forms of Modern Slavery. Voice Lawyers supports the work of the Australian Organisation, Destiny Rescue which has rescued over 5000 children from slavery. Destiny Rescue’s mission is to rescue children from sexual exploitation and human trafficking – helping them stay free. Destiny Rescue aims to stay active throughout these rescue journeys being implementing three main roles being rescuing, reintegration, and prevention of these children.

In 2021, the Voice Lawyers charity dinner is dedicated to this cause and supporting Destiny Rescue, for more information on Destiny Rescue, please click here.

If you wish to join us for our charity dinner, please click here to purchase a ticket.

At Voice Lawyers, we assist businesses who wish to review their employment processes. If you or your businesses needs assistance, please contact Voice Lawyers:


Phone: (02) 9261 1954


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