Difficult distinction between unacceptable work conditions and slavery

Foreign workers in Tasmania experiencing exploitative situations may not have the knowledge or confidence to speak up, social justice groups say. 

Uniting Church Tasmania social justice spokesperson Doctor Mark Zirnsak said a cycle of manipulation and exploitation could render foreign workers helpless. 

"When we find a group of people out on a farm being paid as little as $50 a week...situations where people have their travel documents taken off them, people forced to live in houses that their employers provides and then charged ridiculous amounts of rents, those situations here in Australia don't get treated as human trafficking,” Dr Zirnsak said. 

“Under the international definition they certainly are."

His comments come after the Australian Federal Police revealed 588 investigations and assessments of human trafficking and slavery related offences between 2004 and June 30, 2015. 

“Three of these matters referred to the AFP were alleged to have occurred in Tasmania but in all cases no human trafficking offences were identified,” an AFP spokeswoman said.

“Despite this we believe that no community within Australia is immune from this type of crime.”

Dr Zirnsak said Uniting Church were advocating for people on working visas to be connected to a non-government organisation that they can go to if they think they're being exploited.

Anti-Slavery Australia director Professor Jennifer Burn said conditions considered slavery were “certainly” under reported. 

”People can be in really precarious employment situations, so they can be in fear of their safety, of the safety of their family, or they have linguistic or geographic isolation,” she said. 

“Some people who are exploited in these ways distrust law enforcement and distrust government…people are very fearful of disclosing anything to a government agency because they’re fearful for the outcome.”

Professor Burn said she used the term trafficking to include forms of exploitation including slavery and forced labour.

“It’s this really difficult distinction between substandard working conditions and non-payment of wages and the kind of degree of exploitation or coercion that goes hand in hand with trafficking or slavery.”

She said coercion that took a person’s free will was the distinguishing factor between exploitation and slavery.