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Australia seeks to clamp down on forced labor, organ trafficking

May 30, 2012 |  1:24 pm

In Australia, new legislation aims to combat  organ trafficking, forced marriage and forced labor by broadening laws against slavery and exploitation, a plan that was heralded by human rights groups as a blueprint for world efforts to stop such abuse.

"Tragically, 19th century slavery has not been abolished,” Australian Atty. Gen. Nicola Roxon said, Agence France-Presse reported Wednesday. "It has simply taken other forms."

Traffickers have funneled men and women from India, China, South Korea, the Philippines and other countries to Australia to force them into work varying from prostitution to construction.

Stories of abuse have been reported by Australian news media.  In one case, a Thai woman was reportedly recruited to be a sex worker, then forced to pay off a hefty debt to her Canberra recruiter. In another, a woman was flown from the Philippines to harvest her kidney, allegedly without fully agreeing to do so.

Groups that combat slavery and trafficking say Australia's laws focus on the forcible moving of people but not on other kinds of coercion or fraud, such as deceptive recruitment. Sexual exploitation, which has garnered the most attention in Australian news reports, has been more easily prosecuted than other forms of forced labor.

Like Australia, many countries quickly passed laws against trafficking after agreeing to the 2000 United Nations protocol against it, but found that it was difficult to prove every step in trafficking, said Elaine Pearson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch. A U.S. State Department report on Australian trafficking lamented that in some cases, prosecutors couldn't prove "the necessary intention to exploit."

Australian federal police also “have shared with us that they just don’t have the tools to go after forced labor in the same ways they can go after sex trafficking,” said David Batstone, president of the international anti-slavery group Not For Sale, which has an office in Sydney. Forty-five cases of trafficking were investigated in Australia last year, most of them related to sexual exploitation.

The new, separate offense of forced labor would be easier to prove, advocates say. The proposed law also would broaden the definition of servitude and exploitation beyond sexual offenses.

“It’s not as if there aren’t other ways you can address forced labor, but this strengthens their ability to build a case,” Batstone said.

Under the proposed law, those who help enslave or traffic people would be punished as well. The law also would remove some other obstacles to punishing traffickers. Under the law, “a victim's consent or acquiescence is not a defense for slavery or slavery-like conditions or people trafficking,” Roxon told the Sydney Morning Herald as she introduced the bill Wednesday.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

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