'Hidden from plain sight': 185 years on, slavery still a problem in NSW

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MLC Matthew Mason-Cox

qasbestos5 MLC Matthew Mason-Cox

One hundred and eighty five years since it was legally abolished in the Commonwealth, NSW is falling behind the rest of the world in acting to curb local and international slavery and human trafficking, an upper house committee report has found.

The creation of an independent NSW anti-slavery commissioner and requiring government departments and corporations to prove billions of dollars in offshore imports are not the products of slavery are among the dozens of suggestions in a report by the upper house select committee on human trafficking in NSW tabled in parliament on Thursday.

The committee examined forms of slavery such as forced labour, trafficking of sex workers, cybersex trafficking of children and forced marriage.

"We don't know the full scope of the problem; thousands are affected and often hidden from plain sight," said Paul Green a Christian Democrat MLC and committee chair. "Trafficking is a blight on our society that many thought had been abolished."

Estimating the prevalence of human trafficking was a "huge task" frustrated by a lack of serious data collection in Australia compared to other countries, the Australian Institute of Criminology told the inquiry.

Official figures recording about 100 victims of such crimes in NSW since 2010 are thought to be a severe underestimate.

But NSW and Australia were behind many other countries in policy reform to ensure the state was not contributing to global human trafficking, the world's second-largest criminal enterprise entrapping nearly 50 million people, experts said.

Liberal MLC and committee member Matthew Mason-Cox said: "We spend in NSW in excess of $20 billion a year [on government procurement].

"We import a lot of products from overseas ??? there are issues of slave-like practices in the workplace particularly in south-east Asia. The great tragedy is we just don't know [about these imports' integrity]. It's incumbent upon us to [not] encourage such practices in our neighbours.

"We need to start asking our suppliers the difficult questions that they'll in turn start having to ask their suppliers.

"[The NSW government] is one of the largest supply lines in Australia, if not the largest. But this can be tracked.

"We're asking that that leadership be taken today by the Premier and Prime Minister, particularly in relation to supply lines because responsibility comes from the top."

Experts told the inquiry despite some protections in the state's procurement policy "there was considerable potential for exploitation" in the supply chains used by government departments.

Labor MP Greg Donnelly said NSW had created a path for Australia to act on slavery.

"This is a report that grabs you by the throat," he said. "It's explosive."

Major multinational companies, including global tech giant Apple and leading Australian supermarket chains, have been hit by revelations that their suppliers had been employing child workers or those in poor conditions.

About 40 per cent of human trafficking victims in NSW were sex workers, the inquiry found, leading it to recommend the state government invest in pathways to leave the industry should they want to.

Another 15 per cent were children forced into marriage, the inquiry was told. It recommended forced underage marriage be made a crime.

A spokesman for the Finance Department said slavery would not be tolerated by the NSW government.

"All government agencies must work with their suppliers to ensure that businesses are taking sufficient action to keep slavery and exploitation out of its operations," the spokesman said.

NSW Government procurement is subject to ethical rules in the Public Works and Procurement Act 1912 and government frameworks requiring ethical conduct, the spokesman said.

The state government has until April to respond to the report.

This story 'Hidden from plain sight': 185 years on, slavery still a problem in NSW first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.