Slavery exists in Australia

13 Dec 2023

According to the recent Commonwealth Attorney-General's Department Findings Report for the targeted review of modern slavery offences, the AFP received almost 300 reports of trafficking in persons, slavery and slavery-like practices in Australia in FY22.  Logic suggests that the number of unreported cases is much higher.  For over a decade, Clayton Utz has worked alongside Anti-Slavery Australia, the Trafficking and Slavery Safe House Program at the Salvation Army and others, to explore legal remedies for those brought to Australia and forced into unpaid work as domestic servants, low-paid work in the food and hospitality industries, or sexual servitude as "repayment" of trafficking debts.

The Kannans were convicted and gaoled by the Victorian Supreme Court in 2021 for the offence of keeping Ms N as a slave in their home between 2007 and 2015.  Ms N is now in her 60s and has lived in a Melbourne nursing home since October 2015 with serious lifelong health challenges due to untreated diabetes during her time as a slave.

Ms N grew up in a village in rural India.  She left school aged six, cannot read or write, and speaks no English.  The Kannans arranged and paid for her travel from India, to work as their domestic servant and to care for their 3 children.  Ms N agreed to be paid around $4 per day, to be sent directly to her family in India.  When she arrived, the Kannans took her passport.  Ms N had no contacts in Australia, no language, no money and a soon-expired tourist visa.  She worked extremely long hours, seven days a week.  When she left the Kannans' home unconscious in an ambulance in July 2015, Ms N was gravely ill and weighed just 40 kilograms.

Our team was instructed by Anti-Slavery Australia to assist with bringing an unpaid wages claim for Ms N under the Fair Work Act.  Alongside these proceedings, Clayton Utz negotiated with the Commonwealth Attorney-General for an order to be made under the Proceeds of Crime Act to pay Ms N what she should have been paid for the long hours she worked, every day for 8 years, without a day off.  With the intervention of the Commonwealth Attorney-General, Ms N received an extraordinary $485,411, a life-changing outcome, which puts her in the position finally to return to her family in India after 16 years.

When Mr Navdeep Suri Singh was appointed Indian High Commissioner in Australia in 2015, he brought our client, Ms S, with him to live and work at his official residence in Canberra.  Mr Suri took our client's passport away from her.  Ms S was forced to work 17.5 hour days – cooking, cleaning, washing and gardening for Mr Suri and his wife – seven days a week, for over a year, without a single day off.

Ms S was paid less than $10 a day, sent directly to an Indian bank account set up by the High Commissioner.  Mr Suri forbade her from leaving his residence.  She was frightened, knew no-one in Canberra, spoke and read no English, and without her passport had no way of leaving or returning home. Eventually Ms S summoned the courage to run away, and after sleeping rough found assistance from the Fair Work Ombudsman and the Salvation Army.

Ms S was referred for pro bono assistance by the Trafficking and Slavery Safe House Program at the Salvation Army.  Clayton Utz commenced an unpaid wages claim under the Fair Work Act.

On 3 November 2023, the Federal Court of Australia found in Shergill v Singh [2023] FCA 1346 that the employment conditions of Ms S "bore no resemblance to what one would expect under Australian law", and that Mr Navdeep Suri Singh had committed "significant breaches" of employment law. Mr Suri was ordered to pay $136,276.62, plus a further $53,427.09 owing in interest on that amount since 2016.

Significantly, this case establishes that after an official has left their diplomatic post, there is no diplomatic immunity available to protect former diplomats against Australian employment law claims by their domestic workers.

Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this communication. Persons listed may not be admitted in all States and Territories.