Modern day slavery


At last year’s International Council of Nurses (ICN) Congress held in Melbourne, Coral Levett attended a panel presentation titled ‘Modern Day Slavery’. Coral describes what she heard.

The panel included speakers Joy Johnson from Canada, Joy Ngozi Ezeilo from Nigeria and Jintana Yunibhand from Thailand. Like many people in the room, I had made some assumptions about slavery being a thing of the past for the most part, acknowledging the practice may still be present in some developing nations that are not so much under the international microscope. It conjured up thoughts of chains and shackles, imprisonment and deprivation. But this is only the slavery of those who had know liberty.

Modern Day Slavery

Despite the abolition of traditional forms of slavery and slave labour, slavery-like practices remain a persistent problem in many countries, and according to Joy Johnson, Australia is no exception. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), it is estimated that approximately 21 million people are in forced labour around the world with more than half of these in the Asia-Pacific region. of these, it is thought that 700,000 people are trafficked across boarders into slavery each year; 300,000 children serve as child soldiers; and hundreds of thousands of women are working as prostitutes, having been trafficked from their country of birth.  Official numbers in Australia are small but it believed that the problem is significantly under-reported.



Coral Levett.


Modern day slavery covers a variety of human rights violations, including unpaid or underpaid forced labour, the sale of children, child prostitution, child pornography, child labour and bonded labour. There are strong elements of gender discrimination and extreme poverty as common linking factors. Modern day slavery is often invisible to the masses and some caught up in it may not even think of themselves as slaves. It is this aspect of it which makes it difficult to understand the scale and magnitude of the problem, much less punish or eliminate it. The victims of slavery-like abuses are generally from the poorest and most vulnerable social groups and, due to fear and the need for economic survival, it makes it difficult to speak out.

The good news on the Australian front is we have recently passed the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Slavery, Slavery-like Conditions and People Trafficking) Act 2013. This Act came into effect on 8 March 2013 and makes forced labour, forced marriage, organ trafficking and harbouring a victim illegal. This Act endeavors to protect those in situations of extreme labour exploitation, poor conditions, underpayment or non-payment of wages, where the person has been coerced to work and isn’t free to leave their place of work. Forced marriage will be made illegal under the new law and a gaol sentence of four to seven years may be imposed for offenders. Forced marriage is defined under the legislation as the situation where a person does not give “full and free” consent to the marriage, because of the use of coercion, threat or deception over them.  This law also allows for compensation for the victims of servitude.

It is important that nurses and midwives become aware of the situations that foster modern day slavery, including those in our own ‘backyard’. We may find ourselves in a position where disclosure about these issues is made in the privacy of the health consultation.  Nurses and midwives need to know how to respond and seek help on behalf of their patients or clients whom they suspect are affected. We need to acknowledge that these practices are detrimental to people’s health and to to promote a society where these human rights violations are no longer tolerated.

A useful resource for more information on this subject can be found through the Anti-Slavery Australia organisation at:



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