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A step forward in combatting forced labour and human trafficking

By Corinne Nash, Member of the Executive Committee, Fair Trade Association of Australia & New Zealand | Blog, News |

A welcome step forward in the fight against human trafficking in Australia

We applaud the recent announcement by Senator the Honourable Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Women, that the Australian government has now approved the ratification of the International Labour Organization (ILO) Protocol of 2014 to Forced Labour Convention 1930 (No. 29).1

Modern day slavery

Modern day slavery is alive and kicking, despite the popular belief that William Wilberforce2 and his colleagues put paid to the practice back in 1807 with the British ‘Slave Trade Act’3 of 1807 and then the ‘Slavery Abolition Act’ of 18334, the acts that “abolished” the slave trade in most of the British Empire.

Part of the modern version of slavery is the practice of trafficking people. This is defined as:the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs. (Article 3, paragraph (a)).5

In 2009 the United Nations published a Global Report on Trafficking in Persons6 based on data from 155 countries. At that time the Executive Director of UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) noted that convictions for trafficking were rare, with 40% of the countries covered by the report never having brought a single conviction.

In 30% of the countries that provided information, women were amongst the traffickers (in some countries more than 50%), and often those who themselves had been trafficked. Of those trafficked, 20% were children.6

The United Nations created a Protocol against Trafficking in Persons in 2003 and in the six years between its declaration and the 2009 report, of the countries providing data, those who had made a serious effort to implement the Protocol increased from 54 to 125 (of the 155). Great progress, but not nearly good enough!

How big a problem is this?

It is incredibly difficult to obtain meaningful statistics on the number of trafficked persons annually due to the covert nature of the activity and the reluctance of victims to report, due to fear of repercussions and shame. The Counter Trafficking Data Collaborative reports that in 2020, 108,613 individual cases of trafficking were identified.7 Due to the difficulties in positively identifying cases, this is very likely to be just the tip of the iceberg. The ILO estimates that 40 million people worldwide are currently enslaved.8

Does trafficking exist in Australia?

Is Australia immune from trafficking given our tight border controls? Not at all! And besides, not every case is transported across an international border - vulnerable people exist within Australia also. In 2019 the Australian Institute of Criminology published a statistical bulletin estimating that between 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 the number of human trafficking and slavery victims in Australia was between 1300 and 1900, or 80% greater than the number actually detected.9

What does the Australian Government’s latest announcement mean?

What this ratification means is that Australia has confirmed its support for the update and fortification of the previous protocol - the ILO Forced Labour Convention 1930 (No. 29).10

The new elements put forward to strengthen the protocol are:

- to both prevent and suppress forced labour,

- to protect victims and provide access to appropriate and effective remedies, and

- to penalise the perpetrators of forced labour and end their impunity.

Australia also co-chairs with Indonesia the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime.11 This process has 49 members, including the ILO, UNHCR and the UNODC. Their work is not limited to trafficking but also covers people smuggling and other crimes.

Modern Slavery Act

Although Australia adopted in 2018 the Modern Slavery Act, which requires entities operating or based in Australia that have a consolidated revenue of over $100 million to “report annually on the risks of modern slavery in their operations and supply chains, and actions to address those risks”12, this however clearly leaves out a massive proportion of Australian businesses who need report only on a voluntary basis.

Where to from here?

What is abundantly clear is that slavery and human trafficking are by no means defeated. Australia, along with every other country, needs to continue to work to prevent, suppress and penalise the perpetrators.

In supporting Fair Trade with its important WFTO Principle Five15: Ensuring no child labour and no forced labour, we can each do our bit towards eradicating slavery. Indeed, we can even go further, as some enterprises do by making it their business to provide support, as well as fair and meaningful employment for survivors of trafficking.

Choosing carefully where we spend our money can do so much more than simply ensuring fair wages for small producers.


  1. https://www.foreignminister.gov.au/minister/marise-payne/media-release/australia-ratifies-international-forced-labour-protocol
  2. https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Wilberforce
  3. https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/slavery/pdf/abolition.pdf
  4. https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/articles/the-slavery-abolition-act-of-1833/
  5. https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/5/c/19223.pdf
  6. https://www.unodc.org/documents/Global_Report_on_TIP.pdf
  7. https://www.migrationdataportal.org/themes/human-trafficking
  8. https://fairsupply.com.au/assets/public/ilo_org_wcms_575479.pdf
  9. https://www.aic.gov.au/sites/default/files/2020-05/sb_human_trafficking_050219.pdf
  10. https://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:12100:0::NO::P12100_ILO_CODE:C029
  11. https://www.baliprocess.net/
  12. https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/C2018A00153
  13. https://www.beslaveryfree.com/
  14. https://antislavery.org.au/justice-for-all/

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