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Modern Slavery

By John Coyne

On the 31st of July 2015, Australian paramedics found an elderly emaciated Indian woman in a house in a Melbourne suburb. The woman, weighing just 40 kilograms, had crusted lesions covering her hands and feet. She was later diagnosed with untreated diabetes and septicaemia. At first glance, the Victorian police likely suspected this to be yet another case of elderly neglect, an all-too-common phenomenon in Australia. Soon though it became evident to investigators that this case was even more sinister. The victim, had been kept as a slave by an Australian couple for eight years.

In July 2021, the Melbourne couple, Kumuthini Kannan and Kandasamy Kannan were found guilty of enslaving a vulnerable Tamil woman from India in their Mount Waverley home between 2007 and 2015.

The brutal and sadistic nature of the case is heartbreaking, not the least because it occurred in a 21st century liberal democracy. It also reminds us that modern slavery is a complex crime type at the intersection of violent crime, labour offences and transnational organised crime. It is also a reminder that modern slavery in Australia is not just present within the sex and agricultural industries, but in our suburban streets.

More unusual for Australia, was that the couple involved in this case were prosecuted and found guilty of slavery-related offences. In many cases, prosecutors here prefer prosecuting offenders in modern slavery cases for other related offences, or even labour or migration-related regulatory offences, rather than dealing with the predicate offence. In many cases, this is a direct result of prosecutorial challenges with the legislative definitions of slavery, the difficulty of prosecuting such cases more generally, and the reality that most cases involve victims who hold temporary visa status or are illegal non-citizens.

The case received comprehensive media coverage and has served as a reminder for the Australian public that modern slavery is real. But perhaps it's also a reminder that police and prosecutors need to do more in this space. Fortunately for police, justice sector workers and policymakers, a new international best practice guide is available that assists in assessing ‘what works’ to end modern slavery in the justice sector.

In Target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals, States committed to taking immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, modern slavery, human trafficking and child labour. Out of this effort came an alliance (Alliance 8.7) of actors at all levels to deliver on this commitment. Alliance 8.7 and the United Nations University sought to develop policy guides to

'identify the mix of multilateral and national policies needed to accelerate progress towards SDG Target 8.7, including criminal and civil justice, survivor engagement and support, and the role of the health sector’.

Between April 2020 and March 2021, Delta 8.7 convened global expert working groups to produce three Policy Guides. The expert working groups focussed on identifying and addressing 'what works’ to achieve Target 8.7 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in three broad domains, Justice, Crisis and Markets. The purpose of these Policy Guides is to provide a highly credible and current articulation of what we know about the global and national policy mix needed to accelerate progress towards Target 8.7 in a helpful format for policy actors. A significant number of high quality, geographically diverse studies and evidence from practitioners and academics and statistically significant sample sizes underpin each guide's key findings.

The justice guide's best practice evidenced based hypotheses fall into four broad categories. Firstly justice frameworks must prioritise an evidence-based victim-centred approach. Secondly, justice efforts must focus on appropriate and adequate training. Thirdly, there needs to be a clear legislative framework. Fourthly policies must prioritise cross-sectoral collaboration.

After the formal release of this policy guide, nation-states that have committed to Target 8.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals are expected to encourage broad adoption of the guide's key findings. Furthermore, countries with a strong commitment to Target 8.7 of Sustainable Development Goals states are expected to consider whether they have implemented the guide's key findings and where they can improve.

The reality that an elderly woman can be held as a slave in an everyday Australian suburb and be physically and psychologically abused for eight years is as frightening as disturbing. It also highlights that modern slavery cases need to be prosecuted for the predicate offence, whether these crimes are committed in our suburbs, brothels, or fields: at the very least the victims of these crimes deserve this. Charging those involved in these offences for other lesser or greater offences does not end this barbaric practice.

Success in eradicating modern slavery requires a commitment from police and the broader justice sector to implementing emerging best practices and a victim-centric approach. For Australia, the first step in this journey may be the conduct of a stocktake against the Delta 8.7 Justice Policy Guide to see what has been implemented and where we can do better.

In the meantime, congratulations to the Victorian Police for the successful investigation and prosecution of the Kannans for modern slavery.

Originally published by: on 25 Aug 2021