Our partner in the Modern Slavery Transitional Housing Program, The Salvation Army, operates the country’s only Safe House for women who have experienced modern slavery and human trafficking in Australia. We spoke to Claudia Cummins, Program Manager at the Trafficking and Slavery Safe House, to better understand some of the issues around modern slavery in Australia.

The below interview is part 1 of a 3-part series. In part 2, Claudia discusses how survivors begin to process their trauma, have immediate issues like protection visas and serious health problems addressed, and choose whether to report crimes to the Australian Federal Police. Part 3 is about long-term goals, such as learning English, making friends, finding a job and their own home.

What forms of modern slavery have your clients experienced?

One third of our current client group has experienced domestic servitude: forced labour in a residential setting, or in a slave-like marriage or relationship. One third has experienced forced labour in an agricultural setting, hospitality or other business, or in sex work. The final third has experienced forced marriage or was at risk of forced marriage.

different forms of modern slavery in Australia
The largely unregulated fruit-picking industry is ripe with worker exploitation.

Over the past decade our client mix has changed. For example, forced marriage was only criminalised in Australia in 2013, so we’ve seen an increasing number of referrals for this cohort over time.

In Australia citizens or permanent residents may be at risk of being forced into marriage here or overseas. People are forced into marriage for many different reasons, including family status, to control a young person’s relationships or sexuality, or for visa migration purposes. This is when they are forced to marry, then sponsor their new partner to gain an Australian visa.

We also see people who are fleeing a forced marriage overseas. They seek asylum in Australia, and they often face serious threats for leaving the marriage and their home country.

Escaping modern slavery: Understanding the survivor journey to independence
Some asylum seekers are fleeing a forced marriage in their home country.

What can you tell us about the perpetrators of modern slavery?

They come from a very wide range of backgrounds and ethnicities. They are people who have a sense of entitlement over other human beings, they don’t see them as worthy of basic human rights.

We’ve seen perpetrators who may have grown up in Australia, are well-educated and have a respectable job – who still think it’s acceptable to profit off someone else and deny them their rights. They have no reason at all to not understand human and legal rights, and still decide to exploit someone through a slave-like relationship, forced labour, domestic servitude or sex trafficking.

Where do referrals to the Safe House originate from?

Our referrals come from a wide range of sources: health providers, counsellors, hospitals, community legal centres or refugee services – staff pick up that a particular situation goes beyond unpaid wages and refer to us. Also law enforcement, from local police to the Australian Federal Police (AFP); and other NGOs that support migrants, youth or domestic violence survivors. We also get self-referrals and referrals from good Samaritans (members of the community).

different forms of modern slavery in Australia
Staff at a community legal centre or refugee service are well-positioned to spot wage exploitation.

We had one such referral from a good Samaritan who learnt about modern slavery through a community awareness-raising initiative, and was then able to identify that someone they knew was trapped in domestic servitude. They assisted them to leave.

How do survivors escape their situation of modern slavery?

Sometimes we get referrals about people still trapped in their situation, so first we must plan how to get them to us safely. If they give their consent we can get the police involved to help. It’s similar to domestic violence in that when someone tries to leave their abuser it’s a really dangerous time.

For example, we might hear about a young person at risk of forced marriage who is still living at home with their family. They might have reached out for support through their school or a youth program. We find a safe way to meet or talk to them; it could take place at their school. If they want to leave home we help them make a plan and involve the right support people and services.

Escaping modern slavery: Understanding the survivor journey to independence
Young women may have to escape the family home to avoid a forced marriage.

We encourage people to not take more than what they really need, and only if it’s safe. Packing lots of belongings could tip off the perpetrator. Plenty of people arrive at the Safe House with very little, sometimes not even their passport.

For people leaving a situation of domestic servitude, we might organise transport from a pre-agreed upon location if they’re able to get out of the house safely. Often they are at risk of violence from their employers, and can experience threats and physical harm; psychological, verbal and sometimes sexual abuse. They are in danger.

People have literally been locked in and escaped because a guest has come to the house and left a door unlocked. Survivors have grabbed that opportunity to just get out of there as quickly as possible, and sometimes relied on passersby to help them get to a police station.

Others might not actually be locked in but are threatened and coerced to stay. The perpetrator might be holding their passport and visa documents, or told them the police can’t be trusted and will deport them. We’ve seen people who were told they’d be locked up in jail or a psychiatric institution.

Leaving their situation is a huge step. It takes such enormous courage and resilience – a leap of faith into a new environment.

different forms of modern slavery in Australia
Many survivors don’t know there is help for them in Australia. Escaping takes enormous faith and bravery.

About the Sisters of Charity Foundation’s Modern Slavery Transitional Housing Program

When a survivor is ready to live independently, the Modern Slavery Transitional Housing Program can help them on their way. In this unique model:

  1. The Salvation Army works with clients to find suitable accommodation that is affordable and accessible for work and transport.
  2. The Sisters of Charity Foundation provides funding to cover a significant portion of each client’s rent for up to 12 months; plus a one-off set-up cost for furniture, whitegoods and other necessities; as well as casework services and program administration.
  3. The Salvation Army provides case management and support to ensure clients are managing their tenancy, eventually transitioning the lease to the client so they can live independently.

The model has the advantage of providing accommodation that is tailored to the individual’s needs and overcomes the barrier of entering the rental market experienced by people who have no previous rental or employment history. 

Claudia Cummins is Program Manager at the Salvos Trafficking and Slavery Safe House, where she has worked since 2016. After gaining experience in domestic violence services and refugee community support, Claudia came to work at the Safe House following a social work student placement with The Salvation Army, opening her eyes to the extent of modern slavery in Australia. Claudia holds a Master of Social Work and a Bachelor of International and Global Studies.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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