Modern slavery: what everyone needs to know

24 May 2021
Slavery still exists. And it’s more common than you might think
Find out what slavery looks like in the modern age, and where you can go for help if you, or someone you know, is being exploited.

‘Slavery’ is not a word we hear much in day-to-day life these days. Unfortunately, slavery is not a term that can be confined to the history books. It is very much alive and occurs in every country, including Australia. What’s more: young people, particularly students, are at heightened risk of being enslaved or exploited. This is what slavery looks like in the modern age, and where you can go for help if you, or someone you know, is being exploited.

What is modern slavery?

Any exploitative practice, such as human trafficking, servitude, forced labour, debt bondage and forced marriage are forms of modern slavery and are serious crimes under Australian law. It is estimated that up to 15,000 people are living in conditions of modern slavery in Australia.

‘Modern slavery’ only describes the severe exploitation practices listed above. Practices like substandard working conditions or underpayment of workers, while also illegal and harmful, are not considered to be modern slavery in and of themselves. However, they are potential indicators of modern slavery conditions.

Student worker exploitation

Sadly, it is likely that members of our student community are being exploited and may even be living in slavery conditions. Worker exploitation can occur in the form of:

  • employer wage theft, sham contracting, threats of dismissal, unfair dismissal and excessive work hours
  • employers taking advantage of international student visa status work limits to underpay staff
  • 'paying' students in food and housing instead of paying wages

If you or someone you know is experiencing the above, then exploitation is certainly occurring, and modern slavery may also be in effect. Don’t accept these conditions as ‘normal’ no matter how your employer tries to justify it. There are ways to get help.

When exploitation becomes slavery

Modern slavery is a covert crime and due to the low awareness of it, goes largely undetected in Australia. As a result, it’s extremely important that we raise awareness and learn to recognise the signs

Students are particularly vulnerable to being exploited in the workplace, especially those who have fewer immediate support networks, lower English language proficiency, work in the gig economy, or are unaware of the workforce laws in Australia. If any of the below are occurring, then these actually constitute modern slavery and are serious crimes:

  • Forced labour. For example, you may find yourself in a situation where you do not consider yourself free to stop working or to leave your place of work because of coercion, threat or deception.
  • Forced marriage. For example, you may be unable to attend or complete University studies due to forced marriage either in Australia or overseas.
  • Debt bondage. For example, you may be forced to provide labour or services as security or repayment of an inflated student debt, through deceptive third party student recruitment practices.

Case study: Aarush’s story

Aarush came to Australia as an international student. Through social media, Aarush found a job at a convenience store. Aarush was only paid approximately $8 per hour. As he found it difficult to get by on his low wages, he agreed to work more hours than his visa allowed and took up the offer of sleeping in the store room. He was locked in overnight. Whenever Aarush asked his employer for more pay, he was threatened with being reported to the immigration authorities for working more than his allowed hours. Aarush’s employer also used these threats to get him to work more and more hours. 

Did you know? This is forced labour, a form of modern slavery.

What are we doing about it?

The University is dedicated to the education and empowerment of young people, so addressing modern slavery goes to the moral heart of what we stand for as an institution. Know what your rights are, particularly in the workplace. International students, who may be unaware of what is considered standard practice in Australia, are particularly at risk.

Read the University Modern Slavery Statement (2020) and take the module so you know what the signs are and what you can do if you or someone you know is being forced to live and work under these extreme conditions.

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