There are an estimated 15,000 people living in conditions of modern slavery in Australia (GSI 2018). Australia is a destination country for women from Southeast Asia, South Korea, Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and reportedly Eastern Europe trafficked for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation. Some men and women from several Pacific islands, India, the PRC, South Korea, the Philippines, and Ireland are fraudulently recruited to work temporarily in Australia, but subsequently are subjected to conditions of forced labor, including confiscation of travel documents, confinement, and threats of serious harm. Some indigenous teenage girls are subjected to forced prostitution at rural truck stops.
Moceica Turaga was trafficked from Fiji in 1988 at the age of 17 to work in the Australian horticultural sector. He had been promised the opportunity to continue his education and earn money to support his mother and siblings. After two years of agricultural work in Australia, he learned that none of his wages had been sent to his mother as promised. He was eventually employed by a farmer who helped him escape exploitation. He told his story for the first time in public at the Bali Process Government and Business Forum in August 2017, and again at the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney Anti-Slavery Task Force's Ethical Sourcing Seminar and Expo in February 2019. This version of his narrative was delivered in October 2017 to members of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade during a hearing in Mildura, Australia, about the establishment of a Modern Slavery Act in Australia. He lives today in Bundaberg, Australia, and works in the disability sector supporting children, youth and the elderly. He ran as an Independent candidate for the seat of Hinkler in the 2019 federal election.
I would like to acknowledge that this meeting is being held on Ladji Ladji land and recognise the strength, resilience and capacity of the Aboriginal people and their past experience of slavery in their own country. I also acknowledge the past injustices to the more than 60,000 people from Pacific nations who came to Australia from 1860 onwards as indentured labourers and the significant contribution they have made to Australia's economic, cultural and social development. I congratulate the members of this committee for their efforts to come to our regional area and hear the diverse stakeholders in this important inquiry.
The story I share with you today is about my own experience of being trafficked to Australia, a number of years ago. However, it is a story that is similar to what others are still experiencing today. I come from a settlement in Fiji, which is still a developing country. Unfortunately, my dad died when I was 13 years old, and our family was left without an income. I loved education and had good marks, but, by the time I was 15, I had to drop out and look for work, to earn money to help my mother. When I turned 17, I was approached by a cousin to go to Australia, where he said I could study and earn money that he would send back to my mother. I was excited about the possibility of going back to school. This cousin was a church minister, a respected man in our society and family, so I agreed to go to Australia.
All of our travel was arranged by him, and he brought me with him to Australia in April 1988. When I arrived, he took my passport and he gave it to a migration agent, who, he said, would assist with our permits and legal issues. He also told me that there was a debt that I had to pay off for travel and visa costs. He took me to a grape farm in this part of Victoria, where I worked at two properties owned by the same family. I lived in a picker's hut. I didn't know how much money my cousin was getting from my labour. There was never any contract or accounting for my work. I jumped on a truck at 6 am and pruned and picked grapes until 6 pm or dusk, seven days a week. These grapes went to supermarkets and farmers markets in Melbourne and Sydney. When there were no grapes to pick or prune, I picked watermelons and lettuces at their other farms, some of which went to fast food restaurants.
After about two years, I was finally able to contact my mother and found out that my cousin had never sent any money to her. I couldn't believe this, and I was emotionally devastated. I felt cheated and deceived by this man, who I and our community trusted, but I also felt trapped, because of his position of power in our society and because I would be shamed by my community if I complained or came home empty-handed. I would be seen as a wrongdoer or a rebellious person who didn't make good of the opportunity that was provided to me. He would be believed; I would be considered ungrateful. He could poison the community against me. The power and the fear of this shame kept me in a prison without walls and afraid to ask for help. Also, my passport was still with the migration agent in Sydney, so I kept on working, in the hope that I could find a way out.
During some parts of the year, I was able to walk into town and go to church on Sunday. I met a farmer there who became very concerned about me, and she offered to employ me on her farm. I escaped from the grape farm, and my cousin, and worked for her from then on. It was exhilarating to get paid a real wage into my own hands and to finally have money to get new clothes. I was proud to send the money I made to my mother and to hear the pride in her voice on the phone. The farmer helped me to get my passport back from the migration agent. I was finally free to make my own choices and live my own life. Eventually I began to socialise in the community and married, and I have stayed permanently in Australia, with four beautiful children.
I don't know how many people my cousin trafficked to Australia, but there were many others. I estimate that he made over $200,000 from exploiting me for those years. I am marked by slavery forever. The scars on my back from when I fell into barbed wire and received no medical care are a regular reminder of this traumatic time in my life. As a member of a rural community today, I see many vulnerable workers coming to Australia from all over the world, seeking a better opportunity. Farming is still hard work, and there are still people like my cousin exploiting others for their own profit. People in these situations face so many obstacles to reaching out for help. Your leadership can make a difference to the lives of millions of people in my situation and situations much worse. I thank you for the opportunity to hear my story and I urge you to take action against modern slavery.Courtesy of Committee Hansard, 30 October 2017