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Shocking report finds that ‘modern slavery’ is alive and well in Australia

Moe Turaga never expected to end up enslaved in a rural Australian town when he left Fiji as a teenage boy to earn a living for his family.

May 24, 2023, updated May 24, 2023
A report has found there are as many as 40,000 'modern day slaves' in Australia. (photo: Go Study Australia)

A report has found there are as many as 40,000 'modern day slaves' in Australia. (photo: Go Study Australia)

Offered farm work by an older cousin, he toiled long and hard for more than two years picking grapes, melons and lettuce.

But on a phone call with his mother, Turaga discovered he did not have a cent to his name.

His cousin had confiscated his passport and ripped him off, along with other young men from his village near Suva.

Turaga became a slave at the age of 17.

“All we were doing is getting envelopes and giving it to them,” he told AAP.

“We found out that no money was being sent to our families at all.

“Our hearts dropped that day.”

Turaga and the other young men were angry and scared.

“We were 10 black kids in the middle of nowhere,” he said.

“No one would even look at us unless we were working.”

The latest edition of the Global Slavery Index released on Wednesday by human rights group Walk Free found there were more than 40,000 modern slaves in Australia.

That number has skyrocketed since Turaga escaped his conditions. The 54-year-old has become an advocate for migrant workers.

There are 50 million people who live in modern slavery worldwide, an increase of 10 million compared to five years ago.

Walk Free investigated 170 countries and found Australia and other members of the world’s largest 20 economies accounted for more than half of people living in modern slavery.

The group found $704 billion worth of products each year were at risk of being made by forced labourers.

It praised Australia, along with the UK and the Netherlands, for having the strongest responses to modern slavery.

The Australian government earlier this month committed funding to establish a national anti-slavery commissioner.

But Walk Free’s founding director Grace Forrest said it was shocking to see the number of modern slaves in Australia had doubled since 2018.

“We’re looking at 41,000 people living in modern slavery on our shores,” she told AAP.

Modern slavery includes exploitative practices such as forced labour, forced marriage, human trafficking and debt bondage.

Forrest said the abuse of migrant workers largely happened in rural areas, raising Mr Turaga’s experience as an example.

But it also extended to big cities and industries like hospitality, cleaning services and prostitution, where sexual trafficking was common.

More than $26b worth of products imported into Australia each year are made using suspected forced labour.

“This includes fast fashion and the garments we wear,” Ms Forrest said.

“It includes the phones we’re speaking on and for the first time it includes solar panels.”

She said businesses and consumers should be aware that solar panels manufactured in China could have been made through the state-imposed forced labour of Uighurs and other minorities.

Another major import risk for Australia is seafood.

“A really simple thing for Aussies to think about is where does the food on my plate come from,” Ms Forrest said.

“We’re a country that marks ourselves on a fair go and that fair go is completely fake if it’s built up off the exploitation of others in our country and in our supply chains.”

Turaga warned Pacific labour schemes designed to plug workforce gaps across rural and regional Australia risked operating like indentured labour systems.

He called for national labour hire standards to expose any dodgy recruitment, warning people were coming into the country and being shuffled out to the bush to be exploited by unscrupulous bosses.

He also recommended more language-friendly services to handle complaints from migrant workers.

“We can liberate a hell of a lot of people out there that are sitting in darkness,” Turaga said.

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