Slavery conjures many unsavoury mental images, but to most people few of those would involve South Australia in the 21st Century.
That is about to change if Associate Professor Marinella Marmo of Flinders University’s College of Business, Government and Law has her way.
All around us, people are working and living under appalling conditions that few of us even see, let alone comprehend, she says.
Slavery and slavery-like practices in South Australia include cases of forced marriage, forced labour and domestic, labour and sexual servitude in intimate partner violence cases.
“People, especially temporary visa holders, tend to just accept any condition of exploitation,” says Associate Professor Marmo.
“We go to restaurants and never give a thought of the people working there. But last year, international students put together a grassroots movement out of anger that they are being exploited. They published a list on Facebook of over 60 restaurants in the metropolitan area paying $10 or less per hour to temporary visa holders: chances are we go to these restaurants, but we can’t see the exploitation,” she says.
“What goes on in regional Australia is also shocking in terms of exploitation. Yet when we go to the supermarket and buy the fruit and veg, we don't know how they come from the Riverland to us.
“The same is true for nail parlours popping up like little mushrooms everywhere, and you see rows and rows of Asian women working. And you do wonder, what is going on in these places that even for trades unions are impossible to access.”
In 2019, Associate Professor Marmo published the first report on slavery and slavery-like practices in South Australia, putting this state “on the map of severe exploitation” and bringing at the forefront multiple cases of people trafficked in South Australia between 2004 and 2019 – most of them young women forced to marry.
Her report, in collaboration with ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans), urged the South Australian Government to launch an inquiry and even got the Labor Party to back the establishment of a committee.
That failed to go ahead and now Associate Professor Marmo is running a survey until mid-December on temporary visa holders’ extreme exploitation. The survey is designed to provide more evidence of the problem so that the public and politicians can no longer hide behind the excuse of ignorance.
The survey is online (contact firstname.lastname@example.org for details) and Associate Professor Marmo, together with Katrine Hildyard MP, maintains a Twitter and Facebook account to highlight the issue at @stopslaverysa.
But being a social justice warrior was not Associate Professor Marmo’s first choice of job upon qualifying as a lawyer in her native Italy.
“I practised a little but I remember one time when I was in court with the solicitor and I realised that it was a very important, but dry process,” she says.
So, she travelled to the UK to do her PhD in judicial dialogue and the way judges across the European Union dealt with criminal proceedings and basic human rights.
She arrived in Australia 16 years ago to find a vibrant scene where she could pursue her research in criminology.
“It was a wonderful time, and Flinders University was very social justice and social impacts-oriented. And I feel that this is exactly where Flinders wants to go back to now,” she says.
In the decade and a half she has been in this country, she has seen public attitudes harden to migrants, refugees and low-paid workers.
“There is a level of cynicism as the result of years of normalising certain narratives from the federal government.
“And so we say about the temporary visa workers, ‘Oh, if it they don't like it, they can always find another job or leave’. No, they can't; it’s not that easy.
“Then you have the situation of international students being exploited and paid only handful of dollars a day.
“There are the cases of young women, temporary visa holders, asked to give sexual favours to obtain more hours and so to earn more money. So, the condition of exploitation, it's all layered. And we really struggle to understand what it means.”
Since her 2019 report, she has kept up her research in this area. She believes we should be bracing for a surge in modern slavery cases.
“The United Nations has said that with COVID-19, we will see more people subjected to modern forms of slavery, forced labour, forced marriage and other forms of servitude. But in Australia, you really don't see that yet, because the international border has been shut for so long.”
Associate Professor Marmo says the South Australian Government needs to wake up now to the scale of the problem to come when borders open.
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