Media Release04 Mar 2020

Perfect storm of conditions for modern slavery in the Pacific

New report identifies cases of forced labour, commercial sexual exploitation of children, and forced marriage across the Pacific region.

Photo Credit: Ben Horgan.
  • New report identifies cases of forced labour, commercial sexual exploitation of children, and forced marriage across the Pacific region.
  • Widespread poverty, migration, weak governance, and abuse of cultural practices are all factors contributing to vulnerability to modern slavery in the Pacific.
  • Walk Free calls for action from Australian and Pacific Island governments, development partners, businesses, and faith and community leaders to tackle the issue as a priority.

New research has revealed alarming evidence of modern slavery in Australia, New Zealand, and their Pacific Island neighbours, fuelled by widespread poverty, migration, and the abuse of cultural practices. These vulnerabilities are likely to increase as climate change exacerbates poverty and migration. 

Despite the passing of the Modern Slavery Act by the Australian Government last year, the risk of exploitation of vulnerable people in the Pacific region is expected to increase, according to the research conducted by global anti-slavery organisation Walk Free.

The Walk Free study reviewed the nature of slavery across the region, drawing on grassroots knowledge in eight countries in the Pacific region, including Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu.

In all eight countries where local stakeholders were interviewed, at least one, but often several forms of modern slavery were identified, including forced labour, commercial sexual exploitation of children, and forced marriage.

According to senior researcher Elise Gordon, the report shines a light on some troubling trends in the region.

“There is a perfect storm of conditions which we expect will lead to increased vulnerability to modern slavery in the Pacific region. This is not happening on the other side of the globe; it is right here in Australia and on Australia’s doorstep,” Ms Gordon said.

“We have heard reports of signs of modern slavery among migrant workers in the construction industry, stemming from increasing foreign investment in Pacific Island communities.

“Also fishing, a major industry in the region, brings with it a poor track record as being notorious for forced labour and human trafficking for labour exploitation.

“Pacific island communities are also some of the worst impacted by climate change. Natural disasters, which damage lives and livelihoods, impede the development of these countries, and rising water levels exacerbate poverty and drive migration.

“Climate-induced displacement must be met with greater opportunities for seasonal and permanent migration, but not at the expense of strong protections in both labour sending and receiving countries that ensure workers and their families do not end up exploited or in modern slavery.

 “Our research has also indicated that traditional views of the role of women, girls and children could be contributing to increased vulnerability to forced and underage marriage, forced sexual exploitation, and commercial sexual exploitation of children in the region.”

Researchers conducted interviews with law enforcement officers, victim support workers, policy and advocacy stakeholders, and those working in the education and training industry. Interviews revealed there was still relatively low awareness of the issue and significant gaps in understanding among those best placed to identify victims.

The report makes a number of recommendations and calls for action from governments, civil society, business leaders, development partners, faith leaders, and community leaders and chiefs.

The report recommends that governments in the region implement a coordinated and focused regional response to successfully combat modern slavery. This includes a coordinated approach to protecting migrants within the region.

The report also makes a series of policy-based recommendations, including enacting legislation, and strengthening existing legislation, to ensure that all forms of exploitation are criminalised. It also recommends establishing culturally specific awareness-raising campaigns around how to identify and report cases of modern slavery and providing support services for all victims of modern slavery.  

“There is no question the region faces significant challenges, but during the course of our research we have also seen there are people on the ground in the Pacific Islands and in Australia and New Zealand committed to addressing these issues, and I’m confident we can make a difference if we work together on a coordinated response,” Ms Gordon said.

The full report, entitled “Murky waters: A qualitative assessment of modern slavery in the Pacific region” can be viewed here.

Walk Free is a part of the Minderoo Foundation and produces the Global Slavery Index, the world’s most comprehensive study on the prevalence of slavery.