Trafficking Too Close to Home

Last month’s news report that 9 people died after being crammed into the back of a truck in the sweltering midsummer Texas heat, brought to our attention the reality of human trafficking in a particularly shocking way. I certainly hope it made us, in Australia, ask the question, ‘is it happening here in our country?’ The tragic event in the US forced us to consider that it could be happening right under our noses and we might be blissfully unaware. Tragically, many people in this country believe that, while this is happening overseas, it couldn’t be happening here in Australia. As a member of ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans), I have become sadly aware that our country has not escaped this scourge.

Contrary to popular belief, slavery didn’t end with the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In fact, it is more prevalent today than at any time in human history. Modern slavery includes forced labour and wage exploitation, child labour, involuntary servitude, debt bondage, human trafficking, forced marriage and other slavery-like exploitation, particularly in the supply chains for products we use everyday.

Australia has taken great strides to develop a strong foundation for anti-slavery efforts, both domestically and regionally, but much more needs to be done to address the problem. To that end ACRATH, in conjunction with the Uniting Church Synod of Victoria and Tasmania; Business & Human Rights; the Salvation Army Freedom Partnership to End Modern Slavery; and the Federation of Ethic Communities Council of Australia (FECCA) have made a submission to the government inquiry into establishing a ‘Modern Slavery Act.’

To date, most cases of slavery in Australia have involved migrants. Sex trafficking or servitude of migrant women accounts for the majority of convictions. Over time, an increasing number of cases have been reported to the Australian Federal Police involving suspected victims on a range of visas, including tourist, student, and temporary work visas. Reports of labour trafficking have risen in recent years with referrals involving foreign domestic workers and people exploited in the hospitality, agriculture, cleaning and construction industry.

The following case studies provide some examples of what modern slavery looks like in Australian today:

  1. Samuel Kautai

“In 2006, Samuel Kautai, a young man from the Cook Islands, along with another four young men, all about 17–18 years of age, had been living with and working for Manuel Purauto. Samuel was recruited by the employer’s brother for construction work, who promised that while he would not get any wages for the first three weeks, after that he would get paid the full amount and that Mr Purauto would send money back to his family in the Cook Islands. However, he was never paid more than $50 per month.

Samuel and some of his coworkers were physically abused, underfed, and endured long working hours without decent breaks. Samuel’s passport was also confiscated. In an affidavit provided to the court, Samuel stated: “If Manuel Puruto was not satisfied with our progress he would get very angry. I often saw him become very aggressive to the other workers. On several occasions, I suffered injuries from being physically abused and hit by Manual Puruto.”

The case was pursued by the CFMEU under industrial mechanisms and by the NSW Police Force under state criminal law. The case was decided both times in favour of the applicant, which resulted in Mr Purauto having to pay back Sam Kautai and another employee. In criminal proceedings, the Magistrate said this case was sufficiently serious that it should have been prosecuted in the District Court as they can sentence up to seven years—but that the Magistrate was bound by the decision of the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions on this. Accordingly, he imposed the maximum sentence possible in Magistrates Court (2 years). In sentencing, the Magistrate noted Mr Purauto was ‘deliberately and calculatedly violent and abusive’ to his workers and he hit Mr Kautai, ‘knowing that he was a subservient young man who would not dream of defending himself or complaining’.”

  1. Indian Stonemasons

“A group of seven Indian stonemasons were recruited by a temple committee in approximately 1999 to work on a temple in regional New South Wales. The men were brought to Australia on 457 visas and lived on the work site in two shipping containers, where the only ventilation was the door. The men bathed with the hose on the construction site. The construction site had a fence all the way around it with barbed wire on top. The gates were permanently locked. At various points, they sought permission to have the key to the locked gate so they could leave the site but this was denied. They were taken out once a month for about half a day under the direct supervision of a person from the temple. Their passports had been confiscated and they were threatened if they complained (CFMEU NSW personal communication 2009). The men had been promised decent wages but were, in fact, paid approximately $10–15 per week. They generally worked seven days a week. They were only taken to a doctor very occasionally when they were very ill, otherwise they just had to suffer through bouts of illness. The CFMEU ran a lengthy case against the temple. This resulted in a negotiated settlement (CFMEU NSW personal communication 2009).”

  1. Filipino Carpenter

“A Filipino carpenter was recruited to work with a stonemasonry company. Once on the job site, he was required to do manual labour, such as lift heavy slabs of rock and other odd jobs. He lived in accommodation provided by the employer. After lifting some heavy stones, he nearly injured himself. He asked about his working conditions and was shown a bullet by his employer, who threatened him, told him he owed money to the recruiter and to the company and that the recruiter in the Philippines has a direct line to his family. He made contact with a volunteer from Migranté who assisted him to make contact with a union. He was very scared. The community organisation and the union were able to assist him to find a place to live but not another job. While he was trying to sort out his situation, his family in the Philippines was visited by an associate of the recruiter who threatened them should they not be able to encourage him to return to his employer (Migranté WA personal communication 2009; Unions WA personal communication 2009).”

  1. Maritime Industry – The Pocomwell Case

The Pocomwell case involved four Filipino workers hired as painters on drilling rigs off the coast of Western Australia. The workers were paid only AU$3.00 AU per hour, worked 12 hours per day, seven days per week. The manner of recruitment mirrored common tactics of traffickers with layers of recruitment agents, contractors and subcontractors. According to K & L Gates:

Each painter was employed by Pocomwell Limited, a company incorporated in Hong Kong. The terms of their contracts of employment were agreed in the Philippines and governed by the law of the Philippines. Survey Spec Pty Ltd, an Australian company, hired the painters from Pocomwell through agent Supply Oilfield and Marine Services Inc. (SOMS), incorporated in the Philippines. The drill rig operator (Operator) then hired each painter from Survey Spec at a daily rate of approximately AU$300. Survey Spec was hiring out the painters to the Operator at a rate more than nine times greater than the monthly payments made to the painters by Pocomwell.

The FWO filed a case in the Federal Court alleging contravention of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) (Fair Work Act), however, the judge ruled the Act did not apply on the basis that the platforms were not “fixed” to the seabed and the crew were not majority Australian. This decision raised significant questions about employer accountability in the zone and gaps within the Fair Work Act affording adequate and equal protections for migrant maritime workers.

  1. Domestic Worker Trafficked by Foreign Diplomat

Cristina (not her real name) was recruited to work for a foreign diplomat in Australia. Cristina had a written contract that said she would be paid $2,150 per month for 40 hours per week as a live-in housekeeper. Cristina was granted an Australian domestic worker visa subclass 426 (diplomatic or consular). From the time she arrived, Cristina’s conditions and pay were not as agreed. Cristina’s passport was taken by her employer, she worked seven days per week, was not allowed out, not paid according to her contract and was forced to sign false declarations about payment of her salary. Cristina’s employer told her there were cameras in the house watching her.

She described feeling like a prisoner. “I’m not allowed to talk, I’m not allowed to go out, even throwing out the rubbish.” Cristina’s employer also threatened that there were many poor people in her country where “there is a lot of corruption and a man’s life is only worth $100.” He told her about his many friends and connections in her country. Cristina began to feel increasingly unsafe and contacted her country’s embassy to help her escape. She was referred to the Support for Trafficked People Program for a short period; however, she was later discharged from the program and was unable to access the visa framework.

Cristina’s only successful remedy for redress was a private lawsuit brought by Salvos Legal on her behalf under the Fair Work Act against her employer after efforts with criminal justice agencies failed (due to diplomatic immunity) and the Fair Work Ombudsman declined to pursue her case. It took Cristina over 3 years to get an outcome in relation to her case.

  1. Private Domestic Worker

Susan was trafficked from her home country into domestic servitude in the private home of an Australian family who confiscated her passport. After months of providing domestic and child care services without pay, deprived of food and proper living conditions, restriction of movement and verbal abuse Susan requested access to her own passport. Susan was told by her employer that she had no rights in Australia and to do as she was told. Susan sought help from a neighbour and an altercation ensued with her employer who assaulted her and ordered her to return to the house. Susan feared that she would suffer physical violence if she returned. The NSW Police arrived on scene shortly thereafter, at which point, Susan’s employer began throwing her belongings out of the house and told the police to deport her as she was “illegal.” Susan states that when the police arrived they only took information from her employer and she was given no opportunity to tell her side of the story.

Susan was taken to the police station which she described to be very unjust as the police were not willing to hear her side of the story; “I was there to tell them what was happening to me…they didn’t give me a chance; they were just listening to my employer. It felt like … my country, because the people who have power are the people from high class (who) don’t allow the people from the lower class to talk…I find it’s another country without freedom of speech.”

During the five hours Susan spent at the police station, the police did not ask her what had happened, why her passport had been held or how she came to be in Australia. She was referred to two other community organisations before coming into contact with The Salvation Army. Once referred to The Salvation Army, staff noted that Susan was in pain and had not been offered any assistance/medical care in relation to being assaulted. To date, Susan still has health issues related to this injury.


This is the human face of modern slavery in Australia today. One of the greatest challenges those seeking to end modern slavery must deal with involves the structural and systemic social problems that drive inequality and entrench portions of humanity into persistent vulnerability to exploitation. Another challenge involves the significant barriers victims face to leaving their exploitative circumstances, including fear, ignorance of rights and limited pathways out of slavery.

ACRATH’s hope in being involved with this submission to the government is that an Australian Modern Slavery Act would bring together all of Australia’s anti-slavery efforts under a central role for better coordination, transparency and performance measurement. It would require large businesses to disclose publicly the steps they are taking to ensure their supply chains are free of slave labour. It would also empower consumers to make more informed decisions in purchasing goods that are guaranteed to be free of slave labour in their supply chains or production.

We all need to be aware that this is happening here, not just abroad. We can’t do anything about it if we are not aware that it is taking place.


About Passionist JPIC Australia

I am a priest with the Passionist Congregation and a part of our Australian Province which includes Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Vietnam. I have been ordained since December of 1992. I was born in the Philippines, though am from Spanish decent. I came to Australia in 1972 with my family when I was 11 years old, and we settled in Brisbane. That is where I did the rest of my growing up. On completing high school, I went to Queensland University where I studied for 4 years, completing a B.Sc. with a major in Microbiology. The following year I decided to enter into the Passionist Congregation to study for the priesthood. I trained for 9 years, and have been a priest for 25 years. In my time as a priest I have been Director of the Passionist Family Group Movement in Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland; conducted over 400 Parish Missions all around Australia and New Zealand, but particularly in Victoria and Western Australia; worked in adult faith education, Sacramental preparation for children and parents; Hospital chaplaincy; High school chaplaincy, in-services and retreats. In the year 200 I became engaged in developing young adult retreat teams and training them to carry on our high school retreat programs. I am also chair of our Province’s committee for Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation (JPIC). I am also a member of ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans).
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