Susan Carland: Welcome back to what happens next. If you're joining us for the first time, this is something of a Sliding Doors podcast. For each topic we tackle, we start by considering what the future will look like if we don't make change, then we consider how things could look if we do, and finally we investigate how you can create the future you want.
This is the first episode on a brand new topic, a three part series looking at modern slavery, and you might be surprised to learn that slavery isn't something relegated to the past. It's happening today, and it's happening right under our noses. And in fact, there are more people trapped in slavery now than at any other time in human history.
Criminologist Dr Bodine Hedwards joins us to talk about what the future could look like if we don't tackle the scourge of modern slavery.
Bodean Hedwards: My name is Bodean Hedwards and I am a lecturer with Monash University. I'm a criminologist by trade and have spent the better part of the last 10 years looking specifically at the experience of governments in responding to modern slavery in South and Southeast Asia.
Susan: Welcome Dr Bo Hedwards. Modern slavery. What is it? And how is it different to traditional slavery?
Bo: So modern slavery is essentially a catchall phrase for a range of different exploitative practices, which is human trafficking, forced labour, bonded labour and debt bondage forced marriage. But each of those different terms have their own specific definitions. But basically we've been using this term now in quite a powerful way because it's been used to mobilise what is essentially this new wave of the modern slavery movement, and it varies depending on what you're talking about. So when we talk about modern slavery, when I say it over the next little while, I'm going to be using it to describe this broad range of exploitative practices. But it's really important to remember that it does actually capture very, very specific, very different types of practices that do intersect in different ways. But they're different for a reason.
Susan: Of course. So, for example, someone being trapped into forced marriage has a different experience to a child who is sent down a mine - they are both awful, but different and need to be considered and assisted differently.
Bo: Exactly. And I think that's the really important part there around why definitions matter - the definition ultimately shapes the way that we then respond. In an advocacy sense it's incredibly powerful and we're seeing how powerful that is now because we're seeing the Modern Slavery Act in Australia in the UK and its mobilising this whole new wave of energy in this whole new anti slavery movement that is really bringing business on board in a much more substantive way.
Susan: Traditionally, slavery was one person owns another person. Is there still that concept of ownership of a person in modern slavery?
Bo: The answer is yes. The traditional terminology still applies. I think what has changed is
the context in which they're sold and the ways in which they are sold and, ultimately, another comparison is the price. So back in the day, the transatlantic slave trade saw prices quite high. It was expensive to own someone. So it was also a sign of wealth, whereas now humans have, we've been cheapened. But it's kind of more focused on the labour side of it, so it's much cheaper to buy and sell someone. So it's not necessarily new, but the ways that we are selling people and the cost for which we are selling people is what has changed. It's much more innovative. It's very creative and it gets harder to identify. I mean, the BBC recently, in Kuwait, recently released their investigation into the ‘for sale’ platform, which is kind of equivalent to, well, I mean, they referred to it as tinder.
Susan: So it’s like an app? Like Tinder for maids?
Bo: Yeah, absolutely. So they were using this app which was hosted by Apple and Google.
You download it, you swipe through pictures of domestic workers and you can sort by age, you consort by ethnicity, you could even sort by price.
Susan: How is that slavery as opposed to just employing them as maids?What made that slavery?
Bo: So it would be a very important thing - the BBC article kind of didn't go into a lot of detail about the situations that the workers had experienced, but there is a lot of research, and we know very well that domestic workers, particularly throughout the Middle East and in parts of Europe. I mean globally but predominantly in those areas, domestic workers face
very severe forms of exploitation, and I think that is often facilitated by the lack of protection. It's in the home. It's incredibly hard to identify. It's incredibly hard to get out. You would have to do a case by case to see what was happening behind the images on that app, to understand what their experience of employment had been. But essentially you could expect that there would be a very large number of people on that app that would be being shifted from employer to employer, very exploitative conditions.
Susan: What sort of numbers are we talking about in terms of modern slavery worldwide?
Bo: So the most recent estimates were released 2018 by the International Labour Organisation in collaboration with the Walk Free Foundation and the International Organisation for Migration. And they estimate that there's about 40.3 million people in some form of modern slavery.
Susan: That would have to be the largest number on record in slavery?
Bo: Well, actually, it's not, which is why I love the discussion about numbers. So in 2016 the Walk Free Foundation estimated that there were 45.8 million, I think is what the estimate was. So I mean,
Susan: We're actually two million fewer.
Bo: We've actually, technically, we've dropped. Unfortunately, that does not mean that we have been effective in reducing the number of people in these types of conditions. It just means we're getting better at counting, getting better at accounting for what this looks like. We're getting better at finding those those people basically, and I think you know, there's a lot of criticism around the way that we estimate the number people in slavery, reporting is notoriously hard, it's inconsistent. People make it hard for people to report these situations. So of course, it's not being recorded. So the estimate methodologies are creative, they’re innovative, and we're trying to bring in different ways of counting to try and get a better picture of what is actually happening.
Susan: You mentioned that there was their app in a country like Kuwait. And so it might be easy for someone like me to sit here and go, oh, that's so awful. But of course in Australia, I would never you have anything to do with that. But is that accurate?
Bo: No, it's not. And I mean, regardless of the numbers and you know there's there's all these different estimates. I think when you actually just walk away from the numbers, you could basically say that there are very few countries, if any, countries that do not experience or do not have an underbelly of this kind of this kind of thing happening.
Susan: What would it look like in a country like Australia?
Bo: So there's been a lot of research that is trying to explore exactly what that looks like in Australia. Coming out of Monash, associate Professor Marie Segrave has been doing a lot of work on what this looks like in the agricultural sector. It could look like migrant workers coming into Australia, thinking that they're going to be in a position to earn a better wage than what they would at home. They're going out into remote and rural parts of Australia where they're not getting paid, their passport has been taken, and they have no way home.
Susan: Imagine that passport being removed is quite a significant step in the slavery transition from, say like worker willing worker to slavery?
Bo: Every situation, absolutely. And it's really important to note that when we talk about ... so
slavery, is a big word and it is the most severe form of exploitation. So when we talk about exploitation in the context of Australia and particularly this context, there's a spectrum of exploitative behaviours that can happen, and it's important not to conflate slavery with not being paid or being underpaid or having your passport taken doesn't necessarily mean that you are in a situation of slavery. So it's really important, and again, this goes back to my little gripe with definitions, is we need to make sure that we're not saying every migrant worker that goes out into the agricultural sector in Australia is going to end up in a situation of slavery or forced labour. We need to look at it across that spectrum. And once all those indicators kind of come together, that's when we can start looking at what is actually happening. But that's not to say, going back to your question, it is absolutely happening here. The agricultural sector is just one example - domestic work, I mean, the sex industry is one industry … I mean, it gets a lot of attention, but there was there was recognition a long time ago that that is not the only sector and I think it's just a really important point to make that forced labour happens everywhere.
Once you move out of Australia into other middle to higher income countries again, you're looking at domestic worker, you're looking at the construction sector, manufacturing - all of these places that you may not necessarily think of as having slavery will ultimately have something.
Susan: Which makes me think that it's not just about you know, the people, the forced labourer in the vegetable fields or in the sex industry, but it It's someone like me as a consumer inadvertently buying X,Y,Z that is facilitating perhaps, an overseas slave trade?
Susan: Is that, what would be the worst industries for that sort of thing?
Bo: Look, that's a really hard question because there is no single industry not touched by this issue. Supply chains are inherently complex and the way that that evolved with globalisation meant that they're more and more tiers were introduced to supply chains, so it actually became a lot easier to hide these different experiences. But you know, the really good example to just kind of track what that could look like is the T shirt. You know, I buy a T shirt at my favourite brand, but then when you break down how that T shirt was made, you've got your first port of call is usually cotton.
So cotton for a very long time was source primarily from Uzbekistan, which has one of the most well established, well known government-sanctioned forced labour systems that
harvests the cotton. It was wasn't until 2012 that they actually stopped taking Children under the age of 16 out of school to pick the cotton to then export. I mean, that's your cotton, but then you take your cotton and it has to be spun into the mill, then you go into your garment factories. And I mean, the collapse of Rana Plaza really drew attention to the working conditions of garment factory workers.
Susan: That was in Bangladesh … there were many deaths.
Bo: Absolutely. I mean that drew your attention to a lot of issues around workers safety and worker rights, but it did draw attention to ..
Susan: The industry.
Bo: Absolutely. It drew attention to the industry, and I will say the fashion industry is being pretty good in responding. There are brands now that will promote that they do not source cotton from Uzbekistan.
But in saying that, the supply chain from point A to point B is so complex and currently borderline impossible to track. But, I mean, consumers are demanding it, so ultimately they're going to have to continue to try and work out how they can say ‘my T shirt isn't built/made from cotton harvested by children in Uzbekistan’. So, I mean you've got all of these different supply chains that ultimately land in your favourite store in Australia that you buy. There's no way around it at this point, it is going to touch all of the products that we buy. Food, clothing computers, phones. I mean, if you look at your phone, a lot of the minerals that come from phones and mind by children throughout Africa.
Susan: So if things just continue on in this track, are we just going to become more and more reliant on a slave trade, a modern slave trade that most of us turn a blind eye to? Can consumer society, which pretty much the whole world now is based on, can actually survive without it?
Bo: I don't think … it's no longer a question of if businesses respond to this issue, it's now just a question of when and how. It's not sustainable, basically.
Susan: Slavery is not sustainable, why not? Because the consumer is becoming more aware?
Susan: But - let me push back on that more. People love a $3 T shirt at the big cheap department store.
Bo: Absolutely, and I'm not saying that we're there yet. There is, we're seeing change and change is happening. But there is a lot of research that will now show that it is financially or just bad business to have slavery in your supply chains. Consumers are … we're seeing a shift away from the fast fashion, we’re seeing movements like the fashion revolution, the cotton campaign, all these different movements that are raising the awareness of your everyday consumer about the risks of fast fashion on what that means for - what your $3 shirt means, basically,
There will always be an element of ‘it is cheaper, therefore, I will continue to buy that’. But I do think we are going to get to a position where businesses may have to take a knock to their profit margins for a while to continue to provide that.
But we're going to have to get smarter about how we make sure that the workers are receiving a living wage. I think it's not about whether or not they will, it's just about how. I don't think ... There's a beautiful quote that is plastered on most anti slavery organisation walls by William Wilberforce - ‘You can decide not to act. But you can never again say that you didn't know”, and I think we're there.
Susan: So you think most Australians or people living in Western countries can't say we don't know any more?
Bo: I don't think so. I mean, there would be very few people that had never heard the term sweatshop. Whether or not they translate that into the practise of modern slavery is a different thing. So I think there's a gap. But there's a gap between knowing and acting here at the moment. I think that's kind of where we are.
Susan: Well, it's an inconvenient truth.
Susan: It is a nice thing to get a $3 T-shirt.
Bo: Yes, yes. I mean, whether or not there are still some historical associations with the term slavery - and I think I was pretty smart of the anti slavery movement to adopt this term and putting the ‘modern’ slavery, as the term, as the defining term for this movement, because people then kind of think hang on, well, it must be different to what we knew in the 16,17,18 hundreds, and I think there’s probably, maybe a bit of, still, an association with that form of slavery. But again, like, you know, as I mentioned, I don't think the sale and exploitation of people has ever stopped. It's just society has become more creative with the way that they do it
Susan: well, it's become less palatable. So the problem is now it's just more covered up.
Bo: Exactly. That's exactly right. And they're all type, you know, they're incredibly sophisticated ways that that is happening and there is an element, I think of trying to keep up with that and trying to catch the ways that this is happening. You know, like Instagram, Apple, Google, all of those platforms that we use and enjoy have now been kind of perverted into using it for the sale of people. It was never was never established for that purpose. But here it is being used that way. So I think there's, there is a really ... we’re at an interesting point in time now where there is an element of catch up from society that do find it morally reprehensible to those that see the sale and exploitation of people is still incredibly profitable
Susan: Is it possible that we're heading towards a dystopian future of modern slavery? There's so many slaves, 43 million odd. Are we heading in a really scary direction?
We are we absolutely are. I think there is an opportunity here for people to exploit people in really horrific ways that is far more hard, is much harder to detect. It's much harder to get them out, and it will ultimately be much harder to then bring them back into society and make sure that they don't fall victim to some of these practices again. But
it's already happening. We're seeing the use of technology to exploit and transfer people already.
Susan: So in some ways we're already living the dystopia?
Bo: I think we’re here. We are absolutely at that dystopian future where we're seeing incredibly sophisticated ways to continue that historical exploitation of people that we saw in the in the transatlantic slave trade, we’re just seeing it in a far more pervasive way, than we possibly would never have imagined then. So we're here. So I don't think we're at a point where we can't change. We are changing, but we're also at a point where we have to because this is already happening.
Susan: Perhaps part of the success of the abolition of the traditional slavery movement is that people had slaves living among them. They could look out their window and see how slaves were being treated, and you can't turn away from that whereas I think as you say, we're starting to learn about the clothing industry, for example, because of a few shocking examples. But take, for example, the fishing industry. Maybe tell people what is the story with the fishing industry. Because I think very few people realise what what role slavery plays in the fish that many of us by the supermarket deli?
Bo: Absolutely. So that was a couple of years ago now, where it was essentially found that workers were being recruited from Myanmar from Cambodia all around South and Southeast Asia to go and work in the Thai fishing industry. Again, there's the promises off good wages of good working conditions and the ability to support your family at home.
So, they take the job. It was then found that they were taken out onto the fishing trawlers where they were kept for months. They were physically, emotionally abused for months on end. They were not fed well, they were just the working conditions were horrific to the point where there were also storeys that came out of that broader investigation, where when the workers were you know, that unwell that they couldn't work, they were just essentially thrown overboard. So, I mean, that situation was pretty horrific. And it kind of goes back to that point that those journalists didn't care that they might not have met the definition of trafficking, but the conditions were poor enough that that had to be reported on.
I think there's a point here to also be made about the role of survivors. We don't see them, you know, they're not in our homes - well, domestic workers are, and that's a whole different, complicated situation - but you know, there's work happening in the UK at the moment that's actually bringing survivors to the table. You know, we have to humanise this for people to understand, or to see it - like you were mentioning, we don’t see it. Well, then, let's
stop the U.N talking about it. Get the survivors to the table, get them leading this movement because they are the human face of it. They are the ones that can speak to it. I think there is that there is a really important role, and I think that's probably something that does need to happen more, is we need more of that voice, of that human element to really drive that change. It's hard to look away when they when there's someone there talking to you, and I think that it's starting. It's happening. It's just a matter of providing the platform for it.
Susan: Dr Bo Hedwards, thank you so much time.
Bo: Thank you very much Susan.
Susan: As scary is all that sounds, there is hope. In our next episode, we meet a remarkable group of young women who are working to create a different and more positive future in the area of modern slavery. Special thanks to our guest today, Dr Bodine Hedwards. And thanks for listening. I'll see you on the next episode of What Happens Next?
Slavery’s not a relic. Approximately 40 million people worldwide are currently enslaved in some way – some are even sold on social media.
If you believe your hands are clean, you’re wrong.
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