Our great and powerful ally has at least been tactful in the way it has linked Australia with slavery, debt bondage and involuntary servitude. The just-released annual report of the US State Department for 2007 required by the USA’s Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) says the “Government of Australia fully complies with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking”.

That compliance ensured Australia retained its ranking under the Act as a Tier One nation in the listing of countries for which only “a country of origin, transit, or destination for a significant number of victims of severe forms of trafficking” qualifies.

According to the State Department, it generally requires in the order of 100 or more victims to be given a ranking with placement in first tier “based more on the extent of government action to combat trafficking, rather than the size of the problem, important though that is.”

Severe forms of trafficking in persons is defined by the TVPA as: (a) s-x trafficking in which a commercial s-x act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person is induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or (b) the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.

Even making the list illustrates that Australia has a problem which the State Department report summarised thus:

Australia is a destination country for some women from East Asia and Eastern Europe trafficked for the purpose of commercial s-xual exploitation. The majority of trafficking victims were women who traveled to Australia voluntarily to work in both legal and illegal brothels, but were subject to conditions of debt bond-ge or involuntary servitude. There were several reports of men and women from India, the People’s Republic of China, and South Korea migrating to Australia temporarily for work whose labor conditions amounted to slavery, debt bondage, and involuntary servitude.

The Government of Australia fully complies with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. During the reporting period, the government strengthened its domestic trafficking laws to cover offenses involving deception, exploitative employment, conditions and contracts, or debt bondage. The government also ensured that each person in a trafficking network could be prosecuted in cases involving internal trafficking. It also increased penalties for trafficking in children and for employers who exploit workers in conditions of forced labor, s-xual servitude, or slavery. The government provides significant resources to support anti-trafficking efforts throughout Southeast Asia, law enforcement training, victim assistance, and prevention activities. The Australian government should devote more attention and resources to addressing allegations of labor trafficking, including in connection with its 457 worker visa program.

This quite modest criticism of the 457 visa system is clearly an embarrassment to an Australian Government unused to having squabbles with the United States over anything more important than such things as beef quotas.

Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Kevin Andrews knows that the Labor Party will eventually get around to attacking the so-called skilled migration system and the words of the State Department will be a wonderful peg to hang it on. So yesterday Mr Andrews plucked up his courage and called the US “ill informed in respect to the purpose of the 457 visa and the obligations placed on employers who use the scheme” and said “we reject absolutely the ill informed comments”.

It is a long time since such harsh language has been used in public conversations between the two allies. That it was yesterday is an indication of the sensitivity of the Australian Government to the likelihood that the debate will move from slavery to the use of the immigration program to allow the continued rise of the profit share of the national economic cake at the expense of the share going to labour.

Peter Fray

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