In November 2016, the Sydney Morning Herald and Four Corners partnered with an undercover Malaysian journalist to expose exploitation of foreign workers in the fruit-picking industry. Saiful Hasam said in two weeks working on a peach farm in Swan Hill in Northwest Victoria, he heard “a thousand sad stories” of Malaysians who were convinced by their employer that their hardship was a test before God. Workers on the farm were paid just enough to cover exorbitant rent for a bed in a cramped share house, and were left with little to no money for food. Their expired visa status trapped them and precluded the option of complaining to the authorities.
The story made a small splash in other Australian outlets, but was headline news in Malaysia. Late last year the same Malaysian journalist told the Parliamentary Inquiry into Establishing a Modern Slavery Act the same story. Again, the eyes of the Malaysian press turned to Australia.
The report handed down from the enquiry was titled ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’ and recommended that Australia enact strong modern slavery legislation and appoint an independent anti-slavery commissioner based on similar legislation passed in the United Kingdom in 2015. There is bipartisan support for the modern slavery act so it is almost certain to pass in 2018. This presents an opportunity for Australia to establish a leadership role within the region on the great human rights issue of our time.
But self-reflection is in order if the bill is to have the best possible impact. Australia has the wrong kind of not-in-my-backyard-ism (NIMBYism) when it comes to modern slavery - it is one that assumes slavery only exists elsewhere, where it should demand that it is eradicated within its borders. The Swan Hill incident is important in this regard. While there are other, ostensibly worse examples of exploitation - including forced prostitution in the capital cities, and a Taiwanese ‘house of slaves’ in Brisbane - the Swan Hill incident shows how entrenched modern slavery can become in key industrial sectors and how much attention it can draw from regional partners.
Certainly, in numerical terms, Australia is a small fish in the big pond of Southeast Asia. The 2016 Global Slavery Index estimated that there are roughly 4,300 people in conditions akin to modern slavery in Australia. Compared to Bangladesh (1,531,300), Indonesia (736,100), and Myanmar (515,100) these numbers are low. But as it prepares to pass modern slavery legislation, Australia is putting itself at the vanguard. The fact that so many of those in conditions of modern slavery here are foreign nationals makes their exploitation not just a humanitarian issue, but a diplomatic and political liability.
Slights to Malaysian dignity no longer provoke the same volatile nationalism that they did under former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Much of the commentary in Malaysia surrounding the Swan Hill reports even blamed the victims for being ‘duped’.
But this would not be the case for similar incidents involving, say, Indonesian or Chinese citizens. The emergence of details of people trafficking, forced labour, and debt bondage in Australia involving citizens from these two countries could easily escalate into a diplomatic incident. At the very least, they would receive significant attention on social media sites and damage people-to-people links with Australia’s neighbours.
Think of the damage such an incident could do to Australia-Indonesia cooperation on people smuggling. Since the Tampa affair, Australia has made big demands of Indonesia in this area. The hypocrisy of a permissive approach to the trafficking and exploitation of Indonesian workers in Australia would jeopardise all of that.
Improving accountability in this area will become only more important if Indonesia wins greater access to the Australian labour market in the Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement currently under negotiation.
The mainland Chinese press has already been vocal in its call for better treatment of its citizens in Australia. When two Chinese students in Canberra were recently assaulted, allegedly on account of their race, the Global Times opined that ‘Chinese people's foundation for understanding Australian society,’ had reached a turning point. This was followed by a threat of mass-withdrawal of students and tourists, and a declaration that anti-Chinese sentiment stems from Australian politicians.
Strong, victim-focused, and wide-ranging modern slavery legislation with effective oversight would prevent these diplomatic incidents from ever occurring. Granting amnesty for exploited individuals would allow them to report the intermediaries who facilitate enslavement without the fear of immediate deportation. This is exactly what a UK National Audit Office report has recently criticised Prime Minister Theresa May for not ensuring. Australia has a chance to learn from the UK’s missteps.
Critical to ensuring effective oversight is the appointment of an independent anti-slavery commissioner. Rumours abound of resistance from some in the Attorney General’s Office to this. The recent outward animosity between then-Attorney General George Brandis and the former Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs has certainly added a dimension of caution to the appointment of independent commissioners in humanitarian roles.
There are also issues of control. The AG’s office suffered a significant blow when the Home Affairs Office was announced in July 2017. An independent anti-slavery commissioner would add to the feeling of disenfranchisement. It’s not yet clear what the removal of George Brandis and the promotion of Christian Porter to Attorney General will mean in this regard.
In any case, an independent commissioner would bring legitimacy to Australia’s contributions to forums such as the Bali Process. It would even go some way to mitigating Australia’s deteriorating reputation on human rights as it begins its three-year stint on the Human Rights Council.
Much of the discourse around the adoption of a modern slavery act in Australia is concerned with how Australians can be unwittingly implicit in overseas slavery. There is a proper focus on outing exploitation overseas in the supply chains of large companies.
But effective legislation also focused on Australia’s direct involvement within its borders and the appointment of an anti-slavery commissioner would amplify Australia’s voice in the region and the international community. All the while it would more effectively stamp out exploitation and avoid the potential of uncomfortable diplomatic spats.
Elliott Brennan is a former television news producer and history honours student with research focused on Australia’s relations in the Indo-Pacific.