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In Conversation with Kyla Raby: Reflections on the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit

Recently, Australia and ASEAN celebrated 50 years of partnership through a Special Summit, held in Melbourne from the 4th-6th of March. Now, Young Women to Watch alumni Kyla Raby shares her experiences and key takeaways from her time at the Summit.

Kyla Raby is a globally recognised anti-slavery practitioner, researcher, and educator, having lived and worked in over 20 countries in social service, humanitarian and philanthropic roles with government and non-government agencies and the private sector. She recently founded Everyday Slavery, an educative project which aims to equip the public to play a greater role in preventing and addressing modern slavery, both in global supply chains and the Australian community.

Kyla is also a PhD candidate at the University of South Australia researching the role of the consumer in state legislative efforts to eradicate modern slavery in global supply chains. She is involved in numerous research projects related to the identification, protection, and support of survivors of exploitation and her research has been published in global anti-trafficking and slavery journals.

You were selected to represent Young Australians in International Affairs (YAIA) at the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in recognition of your extensive work in anti-slavery spaces, including the recent launch of Everyday Slavery. Could you tell us more about the project and its inception?


I guess it all started back in 2018, when Australia introduced the Modern Slavery Act based off similar legislation in the UK.  It essentially states that businesses earning over a certain amount of revenue need to report publicly on what they’re doing to address modern slavery in their global supply chains and operations.  The theory behind this legislation was that, by making this information publicly available, consumers like you and I would be able to access and read these modern slavery reports by big businesses and make better decisions around what we purchase – i.e., to support one company over another based on whether we felt that they were effectively addressing modern slavery.


I’m currently halfway through a PhD at the University of South Australia that looks at how the Modern Slavery Act functions.  During my research, I conducted a focus group with people with lived experience of modern slavery, and also partnered with Choice, Australia’s leading consumer advocacy group to survey Australians about their views on modern slavery. 


Through these two research methods, a lot of issues came up with the Act around this assumption that consumers can use this publicly available information to inform their purchases and decisions.  One of the key findings from this research was that consumers really don’t have an awareness of modern slavery in the first place.  It’s very difficult to make those changes if you’re not aware that the issue is prevalent in particular goods or services that you’re buying.  Indeed, even when consumers do possess such knowledge, the information from these business reports is incredibly hard to digest, understand and use in making purchasing decisions.


Given the significance of this finding, I wanted to do something to try and address those issues.  Last year, I submitted a funding application to the Australian Government through one of their modern slavery grant rounds to develop a social media project which targets everyday Australians and helps share information with them to raise their awareness of the presence of modern slavery in everyday goods and services.  This focus inspired the project’s name – Everyday Slavery.


Everyday Slavery now operates across Instagram, Facebook and YouTube, and has a range of different posts and videos about the broader human trafficking and slavery space.  It also contains some more targeted content, including a series entitled ‘Slavery in Every Day,’ consisting of ninety-second to three-minute clips that highlight to viewers the nature of modern slavery in the products that we use every day.  For example, I’ve just released one on chocolate, given its heightened consumption in Australia over Easter.  Overall, the program aligns with the aim of Australian Government’s National Action Plan to Combat Modern Slavery 2020-2025 to deliver information around modern slavery risks in global supply chains to consumers.

At the Summit, you participated in the Emerging Leaders Dialogue, which brought together 65 next generation leaders from Australia, ASEAN, and Timor-Leste for in-depth discussions on key economic, social, and geopolitical challenges facing the region.  What were your three key takeaways from these discussions?


The Emerging Leaders Dialogue was a really fascinating experience and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to attend, so I’d like to extend my thanks to YAIA, Asialink, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and all of the organisers of the event. 


After two incredibly rich days of discussion, the first of my three key takeaways would be that Australia has a clearly identified economic strategy for Southeast Asia which prioritises a number of areas for investment.  Those areas include agriculture, the resources sector, the green energy transition, infrastructure, tourism, and the digital economy – all of which are high-risk areas for modern slavery.  As such, there’s a really significant risk that this future investment may actually contribute to furthering the prevalence of modern slavery in the region if prevention is not embedded very intentionally into that investment strategy.


Related to that, there was a fascinating discourse around ‘leave no one behind’ when dialogue shifted to ensuring that regional economic development is sustainable.  While I do think that this is important, what I noticed is that this discourse doesn’t actually capture the really urgent need to address the serious human rights abuses that are occurring right now and can be fuelled by future economic growth and investment.  I think ‘leave no one behind’ is an important concept, but it needs to be accompanied by a much more urgent and serious recognition of the harm to people that’s currently occurring.


To finish on a positive note, my final key takeaway from the Emerging Leaders Dialogue was that, despite these very serious issues, I feel optimistic that our future is in good hands.  The people that I met at the summit, particularly the other Emerging Leaders, were incredible.  I would say that many aren’t even emerging, they’re already incredible leaders in their respective fields, and many had a very strong commitment to social justice and human rights that they centre in their work.  This is very exciting to see, as I think it’d going to be essential in solving some of these serious problems.



Following the Summit, ASEAN and Australian leaders released the Melbourne Declaration, a joint statement outlining several shared commitments including “cooperation in countering transnational crime”, “combating trafficking in persons” and safeguarding the human rights of all, especially “migrant workers and those in hard-to-reach sectors”.  How would you summarise current regional responses to these issues?


I was very glad to see that these commitments were included in the statement, because the Asia Pacific does have a really high prevalence of modern slavery, with over 29 million people estimated to be in a situation of modern slavery in 2022.  In terms of regional responses, I think that unfortunately there’s some serious gaps in the international legal frameworks that have been embedded in state responses to these issues.  Thailand and Malaysia are the only ASEAN countries that have ratified the International Labour Organisation’s Forced Labour Protocol, and Australia only did that ourselves in 2022


Although the majority of ASEAN countries have ratified the key international instrument related to trafficking in persons – known as the Trafficking Protocol – there are still some really big gaps in its implementation, and in overall state responses to human trafficking.  For example, each year the United States government assesses the extent of government efforts to meet the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking in accordance with the Trafficking Protocol.  They ultimately assign each country in the world a ranking among four tiers.


In the 2023 U.S. Trafficking in Persons report, the Philippines and Singapore were the only two ASEAN countries that received a Tier 1 ranking, indicating that they had met the minimum requirements for combatting trafficking in persons.  While this doesn’t mean that trafficking doesn’t exist in these places, it demonstrates that these state-based responses do meet international standards. Australia was also ranked as a Tier 1 country.  Unfortunately, however, Indonesia, Laos and Thailand were ranked as Tier 2, and Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam were on the Tier 2 watchlist, which means that they are at-risk of falling to Tier 3, the lowest tier.  Very unfortunately, Cambodia and Myanmar were ranked as Tier 3.  Such rankings overall signal that there are some serious gaps in terms of existing legal frameworks that can be implemented to strengthen state-based responses to these issues.

How then should our leaders act to effectively fulfil their objectives?


In addition to implementing the minimum legal frameworks that exist around combatting trafficking in persons, forced labour and other forms of modern slavery, I think that strengthening accountability within the business sector will assist in really addressing the labour abuses that occur in global supply chains.


Going back to Australia’s Modern Slavery Act, a review of this legislation was released last year which found that it had really made no meaningful impact on addressing the root causes of modern slavery, or on the lives of people impacted by modern slavery since its implementation in 2018.  Essentially, it’s unfortunately not meeting objectives to address modern slavery. 


This is concerning given Australia’s close connections to the region – we know that Australia sources many goods and services at risk of being made with modern slavery from ASEAN states and the broader Asia Pacific region.  Therefore, increasing that accountability and strengthening the ability to hold private enterprises to account for modern slavery is key. Additionally, we must address the root causes of modern slavery and trafficking in persons.  Poverty, economic inequality, and discrimination are among some of the fundamental root causes in the exploitation of humans, so we need to see heavy investment in responses that address these things.  Overall, Australia has a duty to support the less economically advanced countries in the region to do the same and really address those root causes throughout Southeast Asia.

Speaking of Australia’s regional duties and commitments, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese made the following statement at the Summit: "Australia is committed to being an exemplary partner to the countries of Southeast Asia – we will continue to be constructive, and to engage with respect, honesty and trust, and, importantly, to listen.”  In your opinion, what is another key area in which Australia can constructively engage in the region, and to whom do we need to listen to guide our response?


Engagement on the issue of climate change is absolutely vital.  It was really fantastic to see climate change recognised as a threat in the Emerging Leaders Dialogue, with a panel session dedicated to the topic on our second day.  The green energy transition was also a subject that frequently arose in other sessions across the Summit.


On the question of who we need to listen to, in my view we really need to listen to local communities and learn from local responses.  There’s been some incredible work undertaken by our ASEAN partners and by community groups in ASEAN countries about what the impact of climate change is on them and how to mitigate that and how to respond to its current and future impacts.  One great example is the ASEAN State of Climate Change Report, which is just one of many pieces of research that’s been done in a manner that prioritises those local voices, and it contains many recommendations which Australia could learn from.

Finally, YAIA strives to engage the next generation of Australian leaders in international affairs and build the high calibre leaders necessary to navigate Australia's future in the Indo-Pacific century.  What advice do you have for students and young professionals wanting to contribute to the development of the ASEAN-Australia relationship?


My best piece of advice would be to engage as much as possible with ASEAN countries.  Travelling to the region if possible and spending time in those countries working or volunteering is such a rewarding experience.  There’s a range of different internships and volunteer programs available for young Australians to take part in, or even just travelling can teach you so much about the culture and communities that make up these countries. 


I was lucky enough to have the opportunity when I was younger to work in Cambodia and have been back three times in the course of a decade.  I was able to do different types of work there, including community development and philanthropic programming.  Experiences like these really help to expand your thinking, and your understanding of the diversity of issues that exist in ASEAN countries and how they resonate with or differ from those in Australia.


Outside of spending time in the region, I highly recommend talking to and engaging with the people and communities from ASEAN countries here in Australia.  We’re a very diverse country and very lucky in Australia to have many ex-pat communities here.  By actively engaging with these people, young Australians can learn about the issues facing ASEAN countries and the region as a whole, and identify and act upon what matters most to its citizens – especially its youth.

Thank you, Kyla, for your time and your valuable advice and insights!



Inspired? Here’s some resources to get you started!


·        YAIA Jobs, Internships and Opportunities Board (keep an eye out for regular updates!)


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