I sat down with Fuzz Kitto, co-director of the Sydney-based advocacy organisation, Be Slavery Free, to find out more about slavery, how we are implicated and how we can help to end this abusive practice.
1. Your organisation focuses on what has been called “modern slavery”. Can you give us a sense of what this means?
There are more slaves in the world now than at any point in human history. Conservative estimates from the Walk Free Foundation and International Labor Organization are at around 43 million. Certainly those large numbers are partly because of globalism and the rise of populations, but slavery is the fastest-growing illegal trade in the world and it’s the second-biggest illegal trade in the world, next to drugs.
Slaves can be found in most countries of the world, including Australia, where it’s estimated there may be up to 7000 slaves.
The criminal convictions we’ve seen here have involved people in domestic servitude—working in people’s houses—most of them have been brought in from overseas. Even in the embassies, in sight of Parliament House, there have been slaves, brought in to work for nothing in situations where their freedom was taken away. In the growing of our vegetables and fruit along the River Murray basin, there are people brought in to work in abusive situations.
It’s a similar pattern in other countries. Migrant labour is brought in—most of it is in the area of manufacturing, agriculture and fishing. Everyone thinks of the sex industry—that probably accounts for 8–10 per cent of slavery around the world.
Seventy to 80 per cent of slavery is in the Indo-Asian region—our backyard and generally our biggest trading partners. So, our biggest involvement with slavery in Australia—even though the slaves themselves aren’t in Australia—is through the things we buy. Something like $A23 billion worth of slave-produced goods are imported into Australia every year.
2. Are all these activities actually “slavery” or are there blurry lines involved? Might we not be just talking about poor working conditions, child labour or similar practices?
Slavery happens in a cultural mindset that says, “Money is more important than people; power is more important than the powerless.” It’s defined by the United Nations clearly in the Palermo Protocols: A person has been taken against their will—they may have been tricked, coerced or kidnapped. Their freedom is taken away—they’re not allowed to leave, physically or psychologically—perhaps because of threats. Their identity papers and passport are taken away and locked up. And they work for someone else’s gain—for very little or no money. That’s the definition—that’s a sharp line.
In Australia, the legal definition lists eight kinds of slavery, including servitude, sexual servitude and bonded labour, which is one of the most common that happens around the world. A labour agent will charge a person a fee to set everything up—the work placement, the passport, the transport to get there. But the person can’t afford the fee so it’s paid in advance—“you can work it off”. But most times they’ve got no understanding of what the interest is on that loan, which they cannot pay off—sometimes the amount is actually increasing over time. We’ve found people who are third-generation enslaved; in other words, they’re paying off their grandparent’s debt. Bonded labour is in so many things we’re connected with—the clothes we wear, the fish we eat, the mobile phones we have—it just permeates so many of the things we buy.
3. The organisation you co-direct, Be Slavery Free, often brings together coalitions of community groups, businesses and others. Churches are particularly well represented, but why should churches and people of faith be interested in this issue, which seems to be more about economics, labour rights and international trade than religion?
Faith is useless unless it’s practical. There’s an old Christian teaching about two kinds of sins: there are the “sins of commission”—the things we do wrong. But then there are the “sins of omission”—not doing things right that we could have. So, when it comes to the issue of slavery, I’d say it would be wrong if churches weren’t involved. All the major religions of the world are exactly the same on that: it’s not just about you feeling good about yourself and maybe getting a life after death, it’s what we do about the world now.
God wants to develop us as individuals, as family groups, communities, societies and globally. The term Jesus used was “the kingdom of God”; in other words, what God wants. And you see through the Bible Scriptures that God wants justice—God wants people to be fair, to care for each other and to love each other. That’s what it means to be a human being.
We helped a fashion company work through their whole supply chain—where they’re getting their clothes made, where the raw materials are coming from—and to put all the details up on their website. And headquarters was getting calls from their store managers, who were saying, “It’s so good to be part of a company that’s doing the right thing.”
I said to one of the ladies there, “There’s something really spiritual about this, isn’t there?” And she stopped—you could see from the rapid eye movement that she was thinking. “It’s about the soul, isn’t it?” she said. “I want to talk about that.”
And that’s where the spiritual comes through. When we do good, our spirit within us harmonises and resonates with the One who created good.
4. How can we be better informed and make better choices when it comes to our purchases?
One of the important things we can do as consumers is to ask the companies we’re buying from, “What’s your risk assessment?” Under Australian legislation, companies with a $100 million turnover or more are required to put a modern slavery statement in to show that they’ve checked. So we say, “Support the companies that are doing the right thing.”
Baptist World Aid’s Ethical Fashion Guide is fantastic; it grades companies on how well they’re doing. There’s “Good On You”, which is an app you can check a lot of goods—not everything, but a lot.
The people who are really interested in slavery are the investors. Because they know that if a company is seen to have slavery in its supply chain their share price is going to go down. So consumers have a phenomenal power here.
5. On your website, you say you prefer to take a positive approach—to “name and fame”, not “name and shame”. What does that mean?
What we do is, when a company does change, we like to name them for what they have done. A while back, Thai Union—the biggest fish processer in the world; 50,000 employees—was accused of having slavery all through the company. It was on the front page of the New York Times. They’ve now become absolute leaders—their global sustainability manager won the Ethical Businesswoman of the Year award in 2019. They did something about it.
It’s not that a company is squeaky clean; it’s that they’re working on it. It’s that mindset of, There’s something wrong here. We’ve got to do something about this. How do we work together to do this? How do we work with consumers, business and government together to say, “We don’t want this; we can get rid of it. Let’s do it.”
It’s about a culture change; it’s not just about getting the right laws. Most of all it’s a mindset that says, “No, we don’t want this on our watch.” And, I’ve got to say, a lot of companies are starting to do something about this.
6. What can we do as individual employees in businesses, government departments and other workplaces to effectively raise the issue of slavery?
We were working with one company—one of the Big Four banks—and we asked them, “What brought you to this point to want to do something about this?” They said it was actually the foreman on the loading dock who got through to them. He saw that the people who were bringing in truckloads of supplies and the cleaning staff . . . there was something not quite right there and he said, “This looks like the wrong thing is happening.” And he pestered and pestered—went up the chain. Eventually, about two years later, they agreed and said, “This is wrong; we need to do something about it.”
That’s where it’s going to happen. It’s not just the CEOs and the politicians. It’s when us as everyday people speak up. When we work together as a society—as a community—everybody wins.
Kent Kingston is editor of Signs of the Times. Fuzz Kitto is an ordained Uniting Church minister and the co-director of Be Slavery Free. Visit <signsofthetimes.org.au/podcast> to hear a longer version of this interview. Find out more about modern slavery and the work of Be Slavery Free at <beslaveryfree.com>.