Fighting modern slavery on all fronts

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In Australia, The Salvation Army’s Freedom Partnership uses a holistic approach to combat modern slavery.

By Heather McIlvaine –

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The Freedom Partnership, established by The Salvation Army in Australia in July 2014, is a national movement to combat modern slavery at a systemic level—working with communities to identify and respond to slavery, including the practice of forced marriage that became a crime in Australia in 2013.

“In many cases, the victims of forced marriage are young women who were born and raised in Australia,” said Laura Vidal, campaign coordinator for The Freedom Partnership. “Often they’re being coerced by their parents or other relatives who may have immigrated here and who may be trying to preserve ties to a different way of life.”

Roughly 3,000 people are known to live in slave-like conditions in Australia, according to the 2014 Global Slavery Index that reported an estimated 35.8 million people around the world experience modern forms of slavery today.  

Helping victims of forced marriage, in particular, requires cultural sensitivity and flexibility to meet the particular needs of young people.

“They are often totally fearful of sharing information with the police because they don’t want to get their parents in trouble,” said Vidal, who mostly encounters victims ages 16-18. “Generally we are contacted by a school counselor or other person who has learned of a potential forced marriage. We meet with the victim and discuss their situation and their options to get help.”

The first step is to make a personalized safety plan with the victim so that she knows how to avoid or best respond to dangerous situations at home. If no other support is available, and the young women want to leave, The Freedom Partnership’s Freedom Fund can cover the cost of basic necessities such as shelter, food, transportation and emergency medical care.

Vidal works with the community to recognize forced marriage, but knows that sometimes the only way to reach a person affected by it is through another slavery victim. The Freedom Advocates is a peer support program that empowers survivors of modern slavery to help others trapped in exploitative situations. Participants receive special training and mentoring to share their stories.

“For young people in particular, we have found the peer support program to be really instrumental,” said Vidal, who also coordinates The Freedom Advocates. “In some cases, victims have been really ambivalent about making a decision for several months, but 24 hours after meeting with a peer mentor, they are ready to leave home.”

Sandra is a Freedom Advocate who often shares the story of how she became trapped in domestic servitude. When her employers promised a paid job as a housekeeper in Australia with the opportunity to become a permanent resident, Sandra jumped at the chance. But upon arrival, the employers confiscated her passport, forced her to work, forbade her to leave the house, and didn’t pay her for three years.

“They had control over my whole life…and I became fearful for my safety,” she said. Eventually, Sandra found help from the Safe-House for Trafficked Women in Sydney—the country’s only shelter for victims of slavery and trafficking, which The Salvation Army opened in 2008. “From that day I began to have choices and freedom again.”

The International Labour Organization estimates domestic workers typically earn less than half of the average wages of all other workers in the labor market—and sometimes no more than about 20 percent of average wages. Yet, the burden of exposing slave-like practices is on the workers themselves, who often live with their employers and depend on them for visa sponsorship.

“The way the system is set up discourages workers from complaining,” said Heather Moore, national policy and advocacy coordinator for The Freedom Partnership. “The system is set up to compel workers not to complain.”

She said employers often take advantage of workers’ vulnerabilities—ignorance of the law, poor language skills, or dependent family members—to ensure they remain compliant.

As one of the few organizations in Australia fighting for the rights of temporary workers, The Salvation Army’s Freedom Partnership has pushed for a more victim-centered approach to potential cases of labor trafficking and exploitation and a safe space to report any offenses. The senate committee included this recommendation in its final report, which Moore said was a victory for The Freedom Partnership.  

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