Thursday, July 5, 2012

Turning a blind eye to modern-day slavery no longer an option

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

Anne Gallagher
July 5, 2012

Surabaya, Indonesia. Java's second biggest city and?its major port, has one of south-east Asia's largest red light districts.?Known as "Dolly" and "Jarak". Pic shows, Girls sit in fishbowl type rooms, guarded by 'bouncers' in the narrow street known as "Dolly".
Trade in human misery ... women sit in fishbowl-type rooms, guarded by 'bouncers' in the narrow street known as 'Dolly' in the red-light district of Surabaya, IndonesiaPhoto: Quentin Jones
Every year, hundreds of thousands of women, men and children are deceived or coerced into situations of exploitation. Modern-day slavery, also known as trafficking, can be found in just about every country.

It is present in the Australian sex industry in the form of foreign women held in debt bondage; in the Russian construction sector, where thousands of workers from former Soviet states are abused; on fishing boats throughout Asia and the Pacific, where Burmese and Cambodian men are not paid the wages they were led to expect; in the brothels of Bali and the private homes of Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, to which Indonesian girls have gone with promises of a better life; in South Africa, where private hospitals harvest the organs of deceived Brazilians for commercial transplant operations; on the cocoa farms of Ivory Coast, made profitable through the almost-zero cost labour of child workers from Mali; and even in the houses and apartments of wealthy Americans, where Guatemalan maids sleep on the floor and are not paid or allowed outside.

The scale of this trade in human misery is difficult to calculate. Latest estimates from the United Nations suggest at least 21 million people are trapped in forced and exploitative labour, and that this shadow economy is accruing profits of more than $30 billion a year. More than half of this is generated in wealthy industrialised countries such as Australia.

It is easy to be horrified about slavery while absolving ourselves of direct responsibility. But that is both wrong and dangerous. Human exploitation has built our world and continues to drive global economic growth. Cheap labour, cheap sex and cheap goods are woven into the fabric of our individual lives.

Many countries derive great benefit from low-cost foreign workers who, deliberately unprotected by law, can be criminalised or shoved aside when circumstances require. Some countries that maintain a strong policy position against prostitution are nevertheless comfortable with a marginalised and closeted sex industry comprised principally of exploited foreigners.

On a more personal level, few of us stop to think why the goods and services we consume with such abandon are so incredibly cheap. The presence of forced labour in the supply chains of major manufacturers has been repeatedly documented. It is sobering to wonder just how big our individual "slavery footprint'' might be.

There are now strong international laws in place that require every country to protect victims, prosecute offenders and work to prevent future exploitation. While progress is slow, many countries are now making a genuine effort. Australia has begun to take on an important leadership role. The Australian government funds the world's largest and most ambitious criminal justice initiative against trafficking. That project, which has been running in south-east Asia for the past nine years, has been widely acclaimed for its impact on laws, policies and practices within and outside the region.

Australia is also beginning to pay attention at home, with new laws on slavery and trafficking and much greater efforts to identify exploited foreign workers in agriculture, hospitality and construction, as well as in the sex industry.

One lesson we have learnt at considerable cost is that a complex problem such as modern slavery does not respond well to quick fixes. For example, it is both foolish and patronising to treat the people caught up in this trade as naive and helpless victims. 

Unfortunately, for many of the world's workers, exploitation is a reality that must be factored into the path towards a better life.
Most don't want to be sent home penniless and disgraced. They just want a decent job. This crucial fact needs to be kept in mind when working out how to extract trafficked persons from exploitation and support their recovery.

Strident calls for foreign governments to crack down on traffickers can be equally misguided. As Australia has learnt through its work in south-east Asia, pressuring underdeveloped criminal justice systems to improve their prosecution rates can contribute to unfair trials and other serious miscarriages of justice.

It is much more useful to help build national capacity to investigate and prosecute trafficking; strengthen labour laws; address corruption; and ensure justice for victims.

It's time to take slavery seriously. The exploitation of human beings for profit is everyone's business. We might not be able to end it, but now we know what's going on, feeling bad is just not good enough.

Dr Anne Gallagher AO received an award from the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, last month for her role in the global fight against human trafficking.

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