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Wednesday, 27 February 2013
Page: 1052

Senator STEPHENS (New South Wales) (10:00): I too rise to make a contribution to the debate about the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Slavery, Slavery-like Conditions and People Trafficking) Bill 2012. We heard this morning that William Wilberforce introduced the bills to the British parliament 200 years ago to abolish slavery, and that over 80 years ago slavery was declared internationally illegal by the League of Nations. One would think that that was the end of it, but we know that there are an estimated 27 million slaves in the world—and that is at least twice the number of slaves that existed in the Roman Empire.

It is particularly disturbing for us in Australia because so many of the world's slaves—roughly 20 million to 22 million of them—are actually found in our region. Many of these people have been born into slavery, or have been enslaved close to home in a factory or on a farm, in a quarry or in a mine, in a restaurant or in hotels. A smaller number are caught in trafficking rackets, and we do not even know how many are subject to forms of slavery that occur in war and conflict or in systems of slavery such as child trading or forced marriage. We do have some numbers, and they are very depressing. There are an estimated 15 million bonded labourers in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nepal who are all slaves to their masters and have no rights. We have an estimated 2.4 million people trafficked each year and many, as we have heard this morning, are trapped sex workers.

Then there are the child soldiers. That is the story that really hits home. An estimated 40,000 children are captives in Uganda—40,000 children who have lost their childhood. It is an evil trade. We know that. Enslaved people across the world are deliberately harvested from groups, or from classes of people who have been excluded or marginalised, or set aside on the basis of their gender or race, their disability, their religion or their caste, and who are excluded from the benefits of the economic system, the social system, from systems for conflict management and, of course, from the justice system.

The government is committed to both a strong criminal justice response to, and protection for, victims of trafficking and slavery. It is an absolute violation of human rights, and it is not enough for us to simply express our moral outrage. We must act to redress it. As the Australian Human Rights Commission reminds us: every person has equal rights, just by being born human. We know that we have a responsibility to ensure that enslaved people are not excluded from the legal system, that their rights are recognised, and that those who take these rights away are guilty of crime. The Crimes Legislation Amendment (Slavery, Slavery-like Conditions and People Trafficking) Bill 2012—a mouthful in itself—is designed to bring Australian laws into harmony with our obligations under antislavery conventions that we ratified in 1927 and 1958 in an attempt to ensure that our laws are comprehensive and apply to the current situation we face both here in Australia and in our region.

I am a member of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights which has the task of assessing the compatibility of all proposed legislation with the human rights and freedoms recognised or declared in the international instruments listed in section 3 of the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act 2011. In considering this bill, the committee has been thinking about what it means to be owned and thinking about the big questions. What is bondage in the modern world? Why is it slavery? Where does trafficking fit in the big picture of slavery, and above all, how can we stop it happening? In considering that process, I found the book Australians and Modern Slavery by Roscoe Howell to be very helpful, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone concerned with this human rights issue. It is an analysis of how Australia relates to each of the 11 forms of modern slavery and, frankly, it is quite eye opening. It brings to the fore behaviours that we do not often think about and which can easily be left in the too-hard basket and behaviours that, as we have heard, are happening in our own country as well as in our region.

Sometimes people in this country are married too young or they are trapped into a forced marriage, and this occurs under systems of belief where women are regarded as property, subordinate, or with identity regarded not as personal but as familial. It happens today in cultures and communities that are established in Australia or are coming to Australia. Cultural ceremonies are taking place here where women, and men and families, believe that they are subject to cultural practices and that cultural rules are paramount. What this legislation does is make it known and make it clear that the rule of law is paramount in Australia. We all have to be ready to adapt to changing circumstances so, of course, the time is right to reassess the laws relating to slavery, slavery-like conditions and people trafficking, when millions of people every year are being exploited by others for financial gain.

It is important that we amend the earlier legislation, the Crimes Act 1914, the Migration Act 1958, the Criminal Code Act 1995 and the Proceeds of Crimes Act 2002, to establish the new offences. Senator Faulkner went through each of those offences in turn. They are offences of forced labour, forced marriage, organ trafficking and harbouring a victim.

This bill will do all that. It will also modify the scope and application of existing offences such as slavery, deceptive recruiting, sexual servitude and trafficking in persons, and increase the penalty for an offence of debt bondage—and debt bondage is something that we are hearing much more about.

There has been extensive consultation on the proposed legislative change in this bill and there is very strong support from across the country and across advocates, lawyers, migration agents, migrant resource centres, charities, churches and all of those who are involved in dealing with the very difficult, seedy side of these kinds of practices and the industry that has been built around it. The bill will not only tighten the law relating to these crimes; it will help to raise public awareness of the issues, and that is one of the important things that we need to ensure occurs, to promote justice and to bring about the changes that we all want to happen. I commend the bill to the Senate.