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Thursday, 24 June 2004
Page: 31565

Mr BAIRD (4:48 PM) —On behalf of the parliamentary Joint Statutory Committee on the Australian Crime Commission, I present the report of the committee entitled The trafficking of women for sexual servitude, together with the evidence received by the committee.

Ordered that the report be printed.

Mr BAIRD —by leave—The parliamentary Joint Statutory Committee on the Australian Crime Commission has a statutory responsibility to examine trends and changes in the method and practice of criminal activities. Accordingly, the committee conducted an inquiry into the ACC's involvement in assessing trafficking for the purposes of sexual servitude in Australia. The committee's inquiry was, in part, prompted by reports alleging that government agencies had mishandled cases of trafficked women. During the committee's inquiry, the government launched its national action plan to combat trafficking in women. The plan includes a range of measures funded by an allocation of $20 million. The inquiry focused on three major issues: the extent of trafficking in women into Australia for the sex trade, the effectiveness of the national action plan and the adequacy of Australia's relevant legislation. This was seen as part of the inquiry.

The extent of trafficking of women for sexual servitude proved difficult to establish, principally due to differing definitions of the crime. It seems that around 300 women are trafficked into the country each year for sex work. However, the number that can be considered to be kept in sexual servitude is likely to be relatively small, although estimates vary from 10 to 1,000. What is clear is that there is a continuum of those who have been trafficked into Australia. This ranges from those who entered with full knowledge and consent to those who entered with consent but were deceived as to their working conditions to those who entered Australia completely deceived as to their work in the sex industry.

The committee found the evidence of working conditions for women in this industry deeply disturbing. The conditions under which many of these women work are Dickensian. Working a six or seven day week with little freedom of movement, they suffer from poor nutrition and are often confined to their basic accommodation. The women must see as many as 10 customers per day, with no control over which customers they see or what sexual acts they are forced to perform. Many women are the victims of sexual and physical assaults and suffer a range of physical and emotional health problems.

Traffickers provide fraudulent documentation which allows women to gain entry visas to Australia. In exchange, the victim incurs a debt to the traffickers of around $35,000. The committee was particularly alarmed at the ease with which traffickers appeared able to obtain entry visas for the women they bring into the country each year. As a result, the committee has recommended that the Australian Crime Commission focus its investigations on the methods by which people traffickers are able to circumvent Australian immigration barriers through visa fraud.

The committee commends the government for the release of the national action plan. However, several potential weaknesses of the plan became apparent to the committee. Firstly, although an interdepartmental committee has been formed to coordinate the government response, roles and responsibilities could be made clearer. The committee has recommended that its role should be strengthened by the formal appointment of a chairperson and the drafting of a charter. Secondly, the committee considers that the measures for the protection and support of trafficked women are inadequate.

The new arrangements, as announced in the government package, are a distinct improvement on the old. However, while trafficked women are recognised as victims of crime, under the victim support package women receive only basic benefits equivalent to the special benefit level. This is the same as that received by, among others, asylum seekers. The committee does not believe this adequately reflects the level of danger faced by women who agree to assist Australian law enforcement agencies or the vital importance of their cooperation in the investigation and prosecution of traffickers. To address this, the committee has recommended that the benefits payable to these women be benchmarked against those available under the witness protection scheme.

The final matter examined by the committee is the adequacy of Australian law in relation to trafficking. The government's national action plan includes a review of the relevant laws. The committee suggests that this review take place as soon as possible, and it should focus particularly on measures needed to ensure Australia's compliance with the United Nations protocol. The committee also recommends the review include the following: the addition of Criminal Code provisions, covering the recruitment and transportation of women; the expansion of the definition of deception to include deception regarding the kind of services to be provided, whether of a sexual nature or not; and consideration of adopting the use of victim impact statements in sentencing.

The government has already indicated its intention to ratify the protocol and the committee recommends that this occur as soon as possible. It is important to ensure that Australian law reflects a consistent approach to what is an international problem. The implementation of the national action plan as well as ratification of the protocol will go a long way towards realising this goal.

In bringing forward this report, I want to acknowledge the support of the committee and their dedication to the task—particularly, my deputy chair, the member for Maribyrnong, Mr Bob Sercombe, and the secretary of the committee, Jonathan Curtis, as well as the other members of the committee. It was an interesting review. Obviously, we see these recommendations as significant in preventing widespread abuse and what is unfortunately a very sad practice within Australian society.