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 how survivors start to rebuild their lives.

The below interview is part 3 of a series. Part 1 is about the different forms of modern slavery in Australia, the perpetrators, and how survivors escape their horrific situations. 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.

After their immediate needs are addressed, what are survivors’ long-term goals?

We start to explore what they want to achieve and how we can support them. Goals may include improving their education, learning English, studying something to build a career in, and making new friends.

Escaping modern slavery, the journey to independence
Finding your way around a busy city when you’re unfamiliar with the public transport system and have limited English takes practise.

We also help them learn life skills – budgeting, saving etc. We sit with clients while they tackle an online form or application by themselves, and offer encouragement and support.

Some have not taken public transport in Australia before. It is daunting. We travel together the first few times, remembering landmarks. Then we help them plan a journey, print out a map, and encourage them to go and do it independently.

People have been so isolated, so we find ways to build community connections. We’re lucky to work with organisations like the Freedom Hub – they run English conversation classes, swimming lessons and job preparation courses. We also work with community centres and volunteers who provide one-on-one English lessons.

In the house at the moment survivors speak six different languages: Mandarin, Arabic, Sinhalese, Urdu, Nepalese and Turkish. In some cases the perpetrator has kept them very isolated and they have only communicated in their first language – it’s another form of control. We see this particularly with slave-like relationships. The abusive partner won’t let the woman learn English because they don’t want them to build their own connections in the community.

What is the goal of the Trafficking and Slavery Safe House?

We want to provide personal and flexible support. Our main goal is to build survivors’ independence and get them to a point where they can confidently navigate Australian systems (healthcare, housing etc) so they don’t need us anymore.

Escaping modern slavery, the journey to independence
Survivors must learn to be their own advocates as they navigate education, employment, healthcare and housing systems.

We also want to increase their knowledge of their rights in Australia and build confidence in advocating for their rights, to minimise the risk of any further exploitation. For example, clients learn about work entitlements and minimum wages, how to discuss these matters with employers, and what to do if an employer is acting unfairly.

How long they spend at the Safe House is dependent on each individual. Some have complex visa and other issues. On average clients will live at the Safe House for at least 12 months and up to two years.

Do survivors befriend each other?

Yes. This is one of the most positive aspects of the Safe House, when people support and encourage each other and become good friends. It’s a really beautiful thing.

Some women have moved out from the Safe House together to share an apartment. Others help with their friends’ babies after they move out and have children. Really nice friendships have blossomed.

Escaping modern slavery, the journey to independence
The friends that women make in the Safe House will last a lifetime as they support each other with major life events.

What industries do people want to work in?

A lot of our clients are really caring people who want to work in aged care or childcare, or gain a qualification toward nursing. Others have progressed through hospitality traineeships and found work in kitchens or bakeries. For someone with pre-existing skills, we can help make these skills transferable to the Australian market. It’s a real mix.

People might have a low level of education in their home country but now have the opportunity to go on to higher education – that’s really exciting for them.

How has COVID-19 impacted Safe House residents?

We had people with their first jobs in hospitality lined up, about to start, and then the industry collapsed. Others were supposed to finish childcare traineeships but couldn’t go on their placements. COVID-19 has been a setback for everyone.

Obviously finding a job and becoming financially independent in Australia is difficult. It is a really huge step when people get to that point, a huge achievement. It opens up a new chapter for them in terms of moving out of the Safe House and into their own accommodation.

Escaping modern slavery, the journey to independence
Achieving independence is a huge accomplishment.

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 as well as 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. This approach also eliminates the need for the client to move again when they exit the program. Instead, from the very beginning of their entry to the program, clients are setting up their own home and life with targeted support.

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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