‘Slavery’, to an Aussie, tends to be something we associate with the United States and Abraham Lincoln and a really shitty moment in human history. It’s terrible, yes, but also doesn’t really have much to do with us.
Wrong, says the Walk Free Foundation. The Global Slavery Index (2014) estimates that there are 3,000 people enslaved in Australia, and while that is just a fraction of the 35.8 million men, women, and children worldwide, it is still staggering and horrifying all the same.
And while slavery might be a crime, it goes vastly underreported, says The Salvation Army. And so at the launch of their Red Shield Appeal last Wednesday, Susan* shared her story of being enslaved by a family in south western Sydney for two months.
Standing next to Lucy Turnbull, she told the crowd how she was brought over from east Africa by her employer’s family to work as a housekeeper, yet when she arrived she had her passport taken away and was forced to work 18-hour days, survive on just a bag of rice a day, and sleep under the table with the dogs.
“[My employer] just changed immediately in the way she started treating me,” she said in an interview with the SMH. “The way she started training the kids that I’m nobody. They opened the door in the morning and stepped on me, said ‘Wake up’.”
One day she found an unlocked padlock at the back gate and made a break for it, successfully getting to a neighbour’s house despite her employer’s friend chasing her and attacking her. The police were called.
Susan was then moved to a shelter for victims of trafficking, slavery, and slavery-like practises, run by The Salvation Army and the first of its kind in Australia.
“The first day I went to the safe house, I was given a bottle full of milk and some bread,” she says.“That day I drank tea. People can say these things are simple, but to me, it wasn’t simple. To be free and to be independent, to have that peace is very important.”
She never pursued justice, facing the double whammy of limited justice avenues (forced labour was criminalised in 2013) and threats to her family.
But dozens (if not hundreds or thousands) of people don’t come forward because of stigma, according to Jennifer Burn of Anti-Slavery Australia.
“Often people don’t want to have the stigma of exploitation attached to them, people don’t want to carry around that label, to be known as a slave.”
It’s why Susan decided to come forward with her story. “This is happening in Australia, it is happening behind each and everyone’s backyard,” said.
And if you’d like to learn more, go here or watch the totally unrelated but equally harrowing story below about Sandra*, who was forced into slavery for three years (courtesy of The Salvation Army).
*Names have been changed.
Photo: The Freedom Partnership / *Sandra. This is not intended to be Susan.