Surely Slavery is a thing of the past? No? ABC Australia reports.

Do you think we have sexual slavery in NZ? Apparently our brothels are very nice according two nice Women Institute ladies from the UK who did a tour of them recently see “NZ brothels get thumbs up from UK Grannies”

ABC News

Australia: Modern Face of Slavery
By Kathleen Maltzahn

July 28, 2008

We should not look for shackles, but rather at the impact of the slave traders, at their power to reduce a person to a commodity. (Getty Images: Sean Garnsworthy, file photo)


“You must be mindful to have your Negroes shaved and made Clean to look well at every Island you touch at and to strike a good Impression on the Buyers…” – Humphrey Morice, Member of Parliament, Governor of the Bank of England, slave trader, England, 1730s

“I’ve paid $45,000; why can’t they look decent.” – Trevor “Papa” McIvor, brothel owner, Australia, 2000s

From the safety of distance, historical crimes look obvious. We would have been one of the ones who fought against that, we tell ourselves, it is so obvious that was wrong.

Things get murkier once they get closer.

In the 1990s, trafficking in women and children, particularly for prostitution, emerged as crime of concern in many parts of the world. In 2001, the then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called it “one of the most egregious human rights violations of our time”. Report after report talked about this “modern form of slavery”.

Few countries escaped being either a source, transit or destination country.

Australia seemed to be an exception.

While in 1999 the Commonwealth had brought in laws outlawing sexual slavery and put the crime at a million dollar a week industry in Australia, by 2003 then justice minister Senator Chris Ellison was confident the problem had been solved. “Slavery chains,” he told the Senate Legal and Constitutional Committee, “where people are traded in, as goods and chattels might be,” did not exist in Australia.

Doing outreach to brothels in the late 1990s and 2000s, however, I wasn’t so sure. I was seeing women who looked very much to me like they were being treated as “goods and chattels” and at least one court case reinforced what I thought. In 1999, Melbourne man Gary Glazner was charged with breaches of the Victorian Prostitution Control Act for crimes relating to trafficking. The investigating police officer believed Glazner had bought up to 100 Thai women, enslaved and then prostituted them. The case echoed an earlier Sydney case, where the AFP had uncovered a trafficking ring.

Both uncovered the practice of bringing “contract girls” to Australia – women forced to pay of “debts” from $30,000 to $50,000 through prostitution. Neither the debts nor contracts were real, but both were enforced through threats and violence, including rape. Women frequently had to do up to 500 “jobs”, unable to refuse drunk, demeaning or dangerous customers, and told by traffickers that if they went for help they would simply be deported.

In 2003, after researching trafficking, including through interviews with “contract girls”, my organisation, Project Respect, began a successful campaign to change federal government policy on trafficking. After years of deporting trafficked women and ignoring the traffickers, in October that year the government brought in a $20 million counter-trafficking package, committed to strengthening the laws against trafficking, and gave trafficked women visas to stay in Australia while they recovered.

In the same year, the AFP charged a Melbourne brothel owner with sexual slavery, the first significant prosecution under the 1999 sexual slavery laws. Five years on, that case has gone all the way to the High Court. When the full bench of the court hands down its decision in a few weeks, it will redefine slavery in Australia.

There are two possible positions the court could take. It could say, as people now charged with trafficking contend, that being a Thai prostitute on “contract” is not slavery. It’s an argument made by people such as Byron Bay criminal lawyer Bruce Peters, who is currently representing Trevor McIvor against trafficking charges.

“These girls were not exploited,” Mr Peters is reported to have said (Sydney Morning Herald, July 6, 2008). “No one argues that they came here illegally but they were brought here voluntarily so everyone could make money. They were not my client’s chattel slaves. They had mobile phones. They were free to come and go as they pleased.”

The alternate view is that being on “contract”, being forced to pay off imaginary debts of up to $50,000 through unwanted prostitution, is indeed a modern form of slavery. We should not look for shackles – the enslavement tool of the transatlantic slave trade – but rather at the impact of the slave traders, at their power to reduce a person to a commodity.

We often think of slavery in terms of ill-treatment, and imagine that violence is unrelenting. But slavery does not necessarily mean constant abuse. Eighteenth century slave trader Humphrey Morice had firm views on the treatment of slaves – he thought they should be treated well. “Take care your Negroes have their Victualls in proper Season and at regular times and that their food be well boyled and prepared,” he told his captain in 1721, “and do not Sufferr any of your Shipp’s Company to abuse them”.

It is important, then, to look at the limits of such treatment. Here’s Morice again:

The slaves are to be served water three times a day, Tobacco once a week and Pipes when they want…Be mindful to iron your strong rugged men Slaves, but favour the young striplings or those who begin to be sick: and let them in general be washt at convenient times: in an Evening divert them with musick letting them dance.

It doesn’t matter if women have mobile phones, it doesn’t matter if they are taken on outings, it doesn’t matter if they have food and drink. If a person’s agency is taken away, if their identity is stolen, if they cannot remove themselves from violence, and if they can be bought and sold at whim, they are slaves. This is the reality of many women on “contract” in Australia.

Whether or not we can see this present day form of slavery, and not just look for its past manifestation, is a test of our capacity to recognise a crime against humanity.

At the end of the day, however, it is perhaps not our views that are most important.

The final word should go to the women who say they have been trafficked, and in the McIvor case, the women’s statements are very clear. “I don’t know why they treated me that way,” one woman has said in her victim impact statement, “as if I was not a human being.”

Kathleen Maltzahn is the author of Trafficked, the first book-length account of the trafficking of women and girls for prostitution in Australia, published this month by UNSW Press. She was founding director of Project Respect, which spearheaded the successful campaign to change government responses sexual slavery in Australia.

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