A Sydney couple was recently charged with modern-day slavery and sentenced to several years jail for holding a Filipina woman as a slave. For three years, the couple forced the woman to work in their home and business without pay.

The woman was invited to Australia by the wife to work as a nanny and housekeeper. When her tourist visa expired, the couple told her she could not return to the Philippines as she had to repay the cost of them bringing her to the country.

She was told never to leave the home on her own or talk to anyone outside the family. Disobeying these instructions would lead to her being punished.

Couple convicted of keeping woman in forced labour at their home

Police eventually discovered the woman and prosecuted the couple with the modern-day slavery charge of forced labour. They pleaded guilty and faced a maximum sentence of nine years. (See Sydney couple sentenced for forced labour, AFP, June 2021.)

The woman got three years jail with 14 months non-parole, while the man got two and a half years behind bars. The couple had to pay the Filipina $70,000 reparation.

Melbourne couple charged and sent to prison for modern-day slavery practices

Just a week later in Melbourne, a couple was jailed for secretly keeping an Indian woman as a domestic slave. For eight years she cooked, cleaned and cared for their three children for just $3.39 a day. They kept her passport and barred her from leaving the house.

The woman was found by an ambulance after she collapsed emaciated, covered in sores and weighing just 40 kilograms. The wife had left her on the bathroom floor and gone to a school concert. She called 000 only after she returned.

The wife was sent to jail for eight years (four years non-parole), the husband six years (three years non-parole) after they were found guilty of possessing a slave, an offence that attracts a maximum of 25 years in jail. (See Melbourne couple sentenced on modern-day slavery charges, AFP, July 2021.)

The judge believed it was the first case in an Australian court that involved slavery solely by domestic servitude. Prosecutors said it was the longest period of enslavement the nation has ever seen.

Slavery is illegal in Australia

Modern slavery is a crime that is spelled out in section 270.1 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code Act 1995. The code was amended in 2013 under the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Slavery, Slavery-like Conditions and People Trafficking) Act 2013 to include slavery.

In 2018 new legislation was introduced to further combat slavery. Under the Modern Slavery Act 2018, businesses are required to report on the risks of modern slavery in their operations and supply chains, and to declare what they are doing to address those risks. (For more information please see Modern slavery - what can be done?)

What defines modern-day slavery?

Section 270.1 of the Criminal Code defines slavery as "the condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised, including where such a condition results from a debt or contract made by the person".

This includes forced labour, forced marriage, deceptive recruiting for labour and servitude, and use of coercion, threats or deception that deprive a person of their freedom.

The maximum penalty for forced labour under the anti-slavery legislation is nine to twelve years, depending on the severity.

Human trafficking and slavery happening in Australia without community knowing

The victims may not be in chains, but these cases demonstrate that slavery-like practices are taking place in Australia.

Most modern-day slavery cases involve the sex industry, with women being brought into Australia from Asia, having their passports taken, and being told they must work until they repay the cost of their travel.

Australian Federal Police say they received 223 reports of human trafficking and slavery in 2019-20. There have been 208 reports to police in 2021 so far. (See Human trafficking, AFP.)

Police urge people to alert them immediately if they suspect a person is being held as a slave.

Emily Wittig
Employment law
Stacks Collins Thompson

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