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Why care about slavery?


Founding Director of charity Slavery Links Australia Inc. and cradle Anglican Roscoe Howell updates readers on modern day trafficking and slavery developments and what practical actions readers can take

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Readers of anglican focus will know something about human trafficking because the Anglican Church Southern Queensland has made a commitment to help end this practice.

This article is about slavery, which contaminates whole economies. Slavery was suppressed in Europe and the Americas in the 1800s, but continues in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. Whereas trafficking involves the movement of a person who is deceived, a slave can be trapped where he or she lives. Slavery happens when a person is treated as if owned. Slavery is a serious international crime and in some settings a crime against humanity. In parts of Asia, there are slave-making systems where whole groups or classes of people who are vulnerable can be harvested as slaves, often with impunity – people of the ‘wrong’ tribe, the ‘wrong’ religion, the ‘wrong’ caste, the ‘wrong’ colour, women and people with a disability can be swept up by forces outside their control.

Why care about slavery?

Why care about slavery? Experience shows that slavery contaminates our lives, communities and businesses. There have been cases of slavery in this country (see below). Australians are also exposed through tourism and trade with countries where many millions are trapped into forced labour, servitude and slavery. In 2005, the academic and campaigner Kevin Bales estimated that between 18 million and 22 million people were trapped in South Asia (Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka). Such people seem to be hidden in local communities. At the Kennedy School of Government, Siddharth Kara showed that their work can find its way into exports to other countries in the region.

In Australia and other developed economies, slavery can taint our trade with some countries, large and small. ‘Taint’ is a term from the law. It refers to proceeds of crime. This happens, perhaps unwittingly, through the lure of prices that seem to be cheap, but carry hidden costs of forced labour or worse.

Much of Australia’s trade is with countries in the Indo-Asia Pacific region. Australians who travel in the region as tourists or when doing business will have seen evidence of slave-making systems that persist into the present time. These ancient systems of servitude are defined in the United Nations’ anti-slavery Supplementary Convention 1956, which Australia ratified. They include child trading, debt bondage or serfdom. Slave-making systems have been able to persist into the present time in some parts of the Indo-Asia Pacific region because slavery can compromise the institutions of justice, law enforcement, business and other institutions that every citizen depends on.

Slavery undermines the Australian economy and basic labour rights

Compromises made by our Asian trading partners can harm Australia, too. The lure of artificially cheap prices can damage legitimate businesses in this country. Australian businesses are required by law to pay a living wage and ensure worker health and safety.

Australia’s strengths can be undermined when a trading partner permits unfair and unjust practices to keep costs artificially low. In 2013, the Senate investigated this problem with an Inquiry into the Fair Trade (Workers’ Rights) Bill. For reasons that are not understood, Australia still enters into Free Trade Agreements that do not protect basic labour rights or standards of employment.

There have been cases of slavery in Australia

Slavery can come into our lives through crime, as well as trade. There have been cases where people who came to Australia as free persons were enslaved in this country by Australians in full view of other Australians who did not recognise what was happening and who did nothing. Two landmark cases were heard in 2008.

The High Court might seem remote or imbued with legal theory, but Tang’s Case shows the Court’s humanity. Para 28 of the written judgment identified eleven tests or indicia of slavery which illustrate the extreme forms of over-control that amount (in effect) to exercise of the powers of ownership. These indicia of slavery are:

In Australia, slavery is not defined by physical chains, but rather by extreme forms of over-control that may be obscure or hard-to-recognise.

Australian governments care about slavery

Slavery is an official concern of the Queensland Government, the Commonwealth and the United Nations. Slavery is a serious international crime which is defined in treaties of the United Nations. Slavery is defined in Australia’s Criminal Code. Section 18 of Queensland’s Human Rights Act 2019 also refers to slavery. It affirms:

Freedom from forced work

(1) A person must not be held in slavery or servitude.

(2) A person must not be made to perform forced or compulsory labour.
(Exceptions are made for labour that is required by a sentence of a court, or labour required in an emergency or as a civic duty.)

The Act is relevant to slavery in another way. In 2008 Tang’s Case and Kovacs’ Case illustrated that some Australians did not recognise slavery. The Human Rights Act 2019 intends to build a culture in the Queensland public sector that respects and promotes human rights. It also encourages a dialogue about the nature, meaning and scope of human rights.

30 July is a day for remembering slavery and human trafficking

At the United Nations, 30 July is the World Day Against Trafficking in Persons. In Australia, the Criminal Code is written in a way that makes a strong connection between slavery and the different but related phenomenon of human trafficking. The Code identifies specific circumstances where a person who has been trafficked may become subject to slavery or a slavery-like practice. The World Day therefore encourages Australians to attend to criminals, survivors and also ourselves. The Day is intended to reaffirm our roles in civil society, to stop criminals from ruthlessly exploiting people for profit, and to help survivors rebuild their lives.

In the Church of England and in Australia, 30 July recognises the people who worked to bring an end to the Atlantic slave trade 200 years ago. William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and a number of other British abolitionists were Anglicans. Several were ordained, including John Newton, who is credited with the Hymn ‘Amazing Grace’. A few were bishops, including Beilby Porteous who was Bishop of London, a slave-trading port. Several other notables were the sons of Anglican clergy. Thomas Clarkson travelled 35,000 miles around England by carriage and on horseback in a campaign of education and evidence gathering, which touched three generations during his lifetime. The British campaign to end Atlantic slavery ran from the 1770s to 1833, when the institution of slavery was banned in British territories, in places like the West Indies, but not Asia or the Pacific. That is another reason why it is necessary for modern Australians to address slavery as it persists in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

Actions you can take

These anniversaries encourage Queenslanders to stand against trafficking and slavery. How can one do that?

  1. As an individual, one can buy products that carry a ‘fair trade’ certification label. Fair trade certification, such as Fairtrade Australia New Zealand, carries an assurance of justice back through the supply chain for goods such as chocolate, coffee, tea and spices. There are ‘fair trade’ systems for hand-made rugs (RugMark, for example) and clothing (such as the Ethical Trade Initiative). You will likely pay more for a certified ‘fair trade’ product, but that is the price of keeping the supply chain free of child labour, forced labour or worse.
  2. As an Australian consumer it will soon be possible for you to refer to reports from Australian entities under the Modern Slavery Act 2018. This Commonwealth Act applies to large entities including businesses, universities, large charities and government entities. The Act encourages large entities to search their supply chains for signs of slavery, human trafficking, or the worst forms of child labour, each of which has a legal meaning. The Act encourages entities to report on steps being taken to clean up the supply chains. Entities will report to a public Register. Implementation of the public Register has been delayed due to the Coronavirus, but is expected soon. For information about the Modern Slavery Register, visit the Australian Government Department of Home Affairs website.
  3. If you have a particular concern about slavery (strictly defined) in Australia, and want to learn more about some of the actions that have been taken over the past decade to encourage governments to suppress slavery, visit the website of Slavery Links Australia Inc.


Bales, Kevin (2005) Understanding Global Slavery (University of California Press: California)
Hochschild, Adam (2005) Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (New York: Macmillan)
Kara, Siddharth (2012) Bonded Labour: Tackling the System of Slavery in South Asia (Columbia University Press: New York)

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