Combating Modern Slavery in ASEAN and Australia

AAYLF delegate from Australia John Swan explores modern slavery in the region.


Have you ever thought about who caught the last fish or picked the last fruit you ate? The International Labour Organisation estimated in a 2016 report that there are globally 40 million victims of modern slavery, including 25 million people in forced labour and 15 million people in forced marriage. Modern slavery is a global human rights issue, and is particularly prevalent in the Asia-Pacific region where there are an estimated 24.9 million victims. The ILO’s report also found that women and girls are disproportionately affected, comprising 71 percent of modern slaves. Children make up 25 percent of victims [1]. As modern slavery is often hidden, it can be difficult to measure but must not be ignored.
Modern slavery broadly involves the control of an individual for exploitation. It is an umbrella term that includes slavery; servitude; trafficking in persons; forced labour; debt bondage; forced marriage; and sale or sexual exploitation of children [2]. Industries implicated in modern slavery include construction, mining, hospitality, fishing, and manufacturing. Victims can also be forced into domestic work and prostitution [3]. A country can be a source, transit or destination country of trafficked people or goods produced with exploited labour.

Freedom from slavery is a right under international law. Article 8 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provides that no one shall be held in slavery; all forms of slavery and the slave-trade are prohibited, and no one shall be held in servitude [4]. Prohibition of slavery is also considered jus cogens [5]. Such a law is a peremptory norm of international law accepted and recognised by the international community from which no derogation is permitted. It is the highest form of international customary law to which all states are bound.

Recent findings of slave practices on Thai fishing vessels are particularly concerning. Men from impoverished families in Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos on these vessels have been tricked into bonded labour. Survivors report routine torture onboard, including sleep deprivation, beatings, and scarce food and water. The killing of those seeking to escape or those unfit to work has been reported. One survivor, Tanawat Wonmoree who was rescued in January 2016 by Thai officials, said that he witnessed ten occasions of a crewmember unable to work being thrown overboard by skipper [6]. Countries that import seafood from ASEAN countries, including Australia, are implicated in this trade.
Modern slavery practices have also been reported in Australia, notably in relation to the horticulture industry. Recent studies have found worker exploitation in the industry, which included debt bondage of migrant workers [7]. These workers may be recruited from their home countries without an adequate work visa, which leads to exploitation and a reluctance to seek help.


ASEAN could have a bigger role in preventing modern slavery in the Asia-Pacific region. The ASEAN Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children demonstrates a joint commitment to tackle human trafficking and worker exploitation [8]. In August, the ASEAN-Australia Counter-Trafficking Initiative was launched. This A$80 million program will assist countries to investigate and prosecute human trafficking, modern slavery and forced labour over 10 years [9]. Further financial and practical collaboration between ASEAN countries and dialogue states to eradicate modern slavery is vital. 

Countries must also ensure that domestic legislation and policy adequately criminalise and prevent all forms of modern slavery. Australia recently enacted the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth). The Act recognises the responsibility of firms to eradicate slavery in supply chains and requires that large businesses with a consolidated revenue over A$100 million publish an annual report on their efforts to reduce modern slavery. Whilst the legislation is welcome, it could be improved with penalty provisions for non-compliance and oversight through an appointed independent commissioner [10]. 


  1. Greater co-operation between ASEAN and dialogue partner countries to enforce domestic modern slavery legislation.
  2. Establishment of a multi-national independent oversight body to monitor modern slavery in the Asia-Pacific region.
  3. Support for civil society groups assisting victims.