Slavery in civilised Australia: Dreams of a better life end in tragedy for illegal migrants

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Stowaways risk their lives to get through the border, hoping to escape poverty and suffering. But their illegal identities do not give them the freedom to chase their dream. The multi-billion-dollar business of people trafficking is an industry that turns people into slaves writes Hao Liu

It is the eighth year since Junyi Chen* started his life without an ID in Australia. He works more than 11 hours in a restaurant in Sydney six or seven days a week. If the restaurant is not busy, the boss may allow him to take one day off.

Chen came to the country with the hope of earning money for his family to have a better life in Fujian, a province on China’s southeastern coast, which is famous for having trafficking gangs that smuggle people to other countries.

“They [the gangs] had made this [human trafficking] a common business in Fujian,” he said.

“They post advertisements for restaurants and factories [abroad] to hire people. The employer will pay for the employee’s flight ticket and short-term visitor visa. But the employee has to work to pay back the expense by working for the employer.”

 Chen also paid an $18,000 intermediary fee to the gangs to get the job, and his family borrowed the money from their relatives and friends. He did not know how long it would take for him to pay off the debt before he started the job: the boss told him the salary would depend on his work performance, and so they did not sign an employment contract.

“The only thing I could think about is to work and pay off the debt… I used to sleep in the restaurant after it closed. I can make a bed with six chairs. I did not have money to rent a room,” he said. “I don’t owe the owners money now but my family is still in debt in my hometown, so I still work more than 14 hours every day. I can’t take rest, they [owner of the restaurant] will not pay me for that.

“I clean the place[restaurant] in the morning and start to wash vegetables after they are delivered. When it is busy, I help to cook some simple dishes. But most of the time, I stand by the sink to wash dishes because I am not a good cook. I basically do everything here.”

According to the Fair Work Ombudsman, full-time maximum work hours are 11.5 hours per day for the hospitality industry in Australia. Meanwhile, Chen’s salary is $17 per hour which is below the minimum wage standard as his illegal identity does not back him up with the right to ask for fair work conditions; the language barrier limits his ability to find a different job.

But instead of thinking himself a victim of human trafficking or forced labour, Chen is more concerned about being deported from the country if the police find out he exists.

A similar story is happening for Yu Qi*. Qi is in her early 20s but she has already carried heavy burdens for her family for three years working in a hairdressing salon in Sydney. “I have four siblings and I am the oldest one. My parents borrowed money to pay the trafficking gangs to take me abroad,” she said.

“There is no hope to earn money quickly in our town, and all the young people are leaving for a better life. I imagined I would not need to share a room with my siblings any more, but the reality is I have to share a small town-house with six co-workers.”

Asked how she got into the country and found the job, Qi declined to elaborate saying: “It is the past and there is no need to recall that memory.”

Qi practices her English communicating with her customers. Through the conversations, she found some clients have a bias about her job: “I know people in my industry can easily get involved in the sex industry. I don’t blame people who think that way because it is a common phenomenon in some communities.

“You can always find these [sex service] advertisements in local Asian newspapers. Sometimes they do not have the choice not to do that [sex service], but I am lucky because my boss does not force us to do that. Our major clients are females who want to get their nails and hair done at a low price.”

The beauty salon opens seven days a week, which means she cannot take any days off. “I do not have much freedom to go out of the city… I do not need that now. I need to save money. We work hard now so we can have more freedom in the future,” she said.

Qi’s boss took her passport from the trafficking gang when she arrived in the city, and the boss explained it is to protect her from being deceived by strangers. With the hope that her boss will sponsor her for a permanent resident visa, Qi works hard to realise her dream as she has no choice but to believe what the boss has told her.

Both Chen and Qi’s experiences involve human trafficking and forced labour but they do not consider themselves victims. The reasons for this are various.

People smuggled into the country illegally are afraid of being identified by the police, and they would not ask for help from legal services if they face a safety crisis. Secondly, most of the victims’ families are under the surveillance of human trafficking gangs. Even if the victim is free from their control in Australia, the gangs can still find their families in their hometown and control them.

Most people think slavery does not exist in Australia, but the reality is the opposite.

According to the Global Slavery Index 2018, around 15,000 people are living under the condition of modern slavery in Australia.

Emma Burn from Anti-Slavery Australia said: “The various difficulties facing survivors of slavery tend to stem from a lack of awareness of their own rights under Australian law, as well as a lack of awareness in Australian society generally of slavery’s existence within Australia, and what modern slavery looks like.

“The Australian Institute of Criminology estimates that 4 out of 5 victims of slavery go undetected in Australia, and unfortunately this inevitably means that some victims of slavery will fall through the cracks.”

Asked about the future of the slavery in Australia, Burn said: “Thanks to the recent Commonwealth and NSW Modern Slavery Acts, Australians are becoming more aware of slavery and exploitation as issues.

“And increasing awareness only benefits the survivors of slavery, increasing the likelihood of slavery’s detection and in turn, increasing the likelihood of survivors receiving the help they need and their exploiters being held accountable.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities

Hao Liu is a student enrolled in the University of Sydney’s Media Practice program. She worked as a press officer in London before getting into USYD, and is passionate about the media and communication industry. Hao is determined to apply content creation skills to a media-related field. 

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