New laws could put sex slaves at greater risk

UK warnings should prompt mandatory reporting by Australian brothels

After four years in the role, the UK Anti-Slavery Commissioner resigned last week “with a heavy heart”. Appointed by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary, Kevin Hyland has gone on to make a national and global impact in contributing to the fight against modern-day slavery, including ensuring modern day slavery is recognised in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

What does this all mean for Australia’s imminent Modern Slavery Act?

So, why the sudden departure? There has been growing criticism that the UK Government’s approach to the crime of slavery is “not fully understood”, and that it was difficult to establish whether the UK’s Modern Slavery Act 2015 is a successful approach. In UK’s Parliament last week, MPs referred to traffickers “winning” in the war against trafficking, with women being exploited on an “industrial scale” in pop-up brothels.

Hyland has previously spoken out about Britain’s shortfalls in implementing the Modern Slavery Act, including a failure to support victims. He claimed there were only sub-standard data recording and intelligence gathering procedures, resulting in very low prosecution rates.

The UK law has been called “muddled” and “inconsistent”. At the core of the frustration, is that this international crime is seen only as a criminal justice issue, neglecting the human rights components of these violations.

So, what does this all mean for Australia’s imminent Modern Slavery Act?

Previously, the UK Parliament has emphatically warned us of the shortfalls of its Modern Slavery Act.

To date, neither the New South Wales or the Commonwealth’s Modern Slavery Act addresses sex slavery or forced prostitution expressly. Currently, the threshold within both the Federal and NSW Modern Slavery Bills will not include high-risk industries such as brothels from mandatory reporting on slavery in their supply chains. Therefore, this will disclude the reporting of certain slave-like practices, such as forced prostitution and sex slavery, as defined in international law.

Sex slavery and forced prostitution are condemned in international law as violence against women, a violation of the dignity of all persons, as slavery and as an international human right crime (DEVAW and the Trafficking Protocol). Brothels need to ensure that they are not places of business that harbour slaves or force people into prostitution and that their business practice is compatible with international human rights standards.

High-risk businesses more likely to harbour slavery will be exempt from mandatory reporting under our new laws.

Lord McColl of Dulwich stated that the failure of the UK Modern Slavery Act to address demand for sex trafficking was “a very serious oversight given that, according to the National Referral Mechanism figures, sexual exploitation is consistently the most prevalent form of human trafficking in England and Wales”.

The Australian Government’s Modern Slavery Reporting Requirement to be established mid-2018 will make it mandatory for big business and voluntary for all business to report to a public repository annually on slavery in their supply chains (searchable by civil society).

Slavery in raw materials such as tea, coffee, chocolate, seafood and cotton have been identified in Australian business supply chains by international reports.

Slavery in the service supply chains in the agriculture, hospitality and brothel industries are the most common forms of service supply chain slavery in Australia. However, these are the businesses that do not attract mandatory reporting requirements under our new laws – given the proposed high thresholds of $100 million revenue for the Commonwealth jurisdiction and $50 million in the NSW law.

At the heart of Australia’s legislation is the push towards more transparent business dealings and to encourage all businesses to check for slavery in their goods and services supply chains.

But high-risk businesses that are more likely to harbour slavery will be exempt from mandatory reporting under our new laws. Sex slavery is by far the most heinous human right violation within the category of slavery, as it’s victims are abused, traumatised and raped on a daily basis. But it is the major category that is not expressly dealt with in either Modern Slavery Act.

We have no idea who, how old, and for how long people are working brothels

Brothels in Australia do not exercise full transparency and accountability as part of their current business reporting requirements. Even in our legalised, decriminalised and regulated systems of sex work here in Australia, there is a lack of transparency in who works in the different brothels, where they have come from and if they are receiving the health, mental health and social services support they require. The industry is transient in nature, and the women working as sex workers tend to move around brothels across state borders, and we have no idea who, how old, and for how long people are working in these places at any one time.

Prostitution laws are different in each jurisdiction, and statistically, we have no idea how many women are domestically transferred or trafficked across state borders. In addition to this domestic reality, Australia’s prostitution laws are contributing to sex slavery in our region. Legalising the commodification of flesh in Australia is driving a demand culture for sex slavery into our developing region, in particular through the commercial habits of Australia’s sex tourists in to South-East Asia.

There is a need for greater transparency in our legalised, decriminalised and criminalised models of prostitution across our nation, as more and more victims and survivors of forced prostitution report experiences of slavery, servitude, exploitation, abuse and trauma within legal brothels.

The voices of these victims of sex slavery need to be heard.

The vulnerability of those working in brothels also needs to be acknowledged. We know from international studies that a high percentage of the women (89%) working in brothels want to get out – but feel they cannot (Farley, 2014). Studies also speak to the vulnerability indicators of women in prostitution, including homelessness (50%), child rape (80%), underaged (50%), coerced (50%) – (Farley, 2003). This questions the voluntary nature of women entering sex work.

The greatest impact the Modern Slavery Act will have … is providing more data [about] where slavery exists in Australia

All brothels across Australia should be required to report annually on their compliance with our Modern Slavery legislation; outlining that they have checked for, and are satisfied that there are no sex slaves working in forced prostitution in their place of business.

The proposed four mandatory reporting criteria Federally will include reporting on all slavery practices criminalised under Commonwealth law. These include slavery, trafficking in persons, servitude, forced labour and forced marriage, with the government committing $3.6 million through the Federal Budget to established a new Anti-Slavery Business Engagement Unit in the Department of Home Affairs.

The greatest impact the Modern Slavery Act will have in Australia is providing us with more data in relation to where slavery exists in Australia and how these slaves are being hidden in plain sight in our communities. The one place real change needs to occur is the industry that is not obliged to report on slavery in their supply chains.

This is Australia’s failed opportunity and sets us up for a fall even before we enact our new laws with the view of combating modern-day slavery.

Home Affairs Assistant Minister Alex Hawke has said: “Modern slavery thrives in the shadows of global supply chains and involves serious crimes and human rights abuses … It is a significant risk for Australian businesses as it undermines their competitiveness and can have substantial legal and reputational costs for businesses that fail to protect their supply chains.”

The greatest shadows of slavery, the most serious crimes and human right abuses in Australia exists in our brothels.

We need to listen to the voices of victim survivors more

“This legislation sends a clear message that modern slavery will not be tolerated in our community or in the supply chains of our goods and services,” according to MP Hawke.

This same message needs to be clearly stipulated to brothel managers, pimps, sex slave owners and sex traffickers equally. As a society working towards gender equality, we need to stand against institutionalised rape: which includes its prevalence in legalised brothels. Rachel Moran, a vocal survivor of the sex trade in Ireland refers to prostitution as paid rape.

We need to listen to the voices of victim survivors more, and include their voice in our legislative reform processes.

The legalisation of an industry that encourages, perpetuates and demands gender based and sexual violence against the most vulnerable in our society and abroad can be termed state-sanctioned legalised rape. Let’s not #legaliserape but ensure we are supporting the rehabilitation of its victims.

No Australian business should be exempt from checking for slavery in their supply chains, particularly industries that have a high risk of engaging slave-like practices. Precluding high-risk slave industries such as brothels from mandatory reporting will see Australia repeating the mistake of the UK legislation.

Australia cannot claim to address slavery in supply chains until businesses in high-risk categories such as brothels are compelled to report on slavery annually to our Anti-Slavery Commissioner.

The only way that Australia can ensure a sincere response to the problems of modern day slavery is to ensure all forms of slavery are addressed, with the facilitation of full rehabilitation and assistance to its victims within a human rights framework.

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