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Australia Urged to Combat Modern Day Slavery

Human rights advocates are urging Australia to do more to protect vulnerable foreign workers from slavery. Forced labor has been the focus of a meeting of human trafficking experts in Sydney. Rights advocates believe there is a hidden army of migrants who are being held against their will after being coerced or tricked into traveling to Australia.

It used to be Australia's sex industry that drew the focus of law enforcement authorities to the trafficking of women. Now, rights advocates say, such forced labor affects many different sectors, including construction, hospitality and agriculture.

There is very little hard data because of the shadowy nature of the problem. Victims are usually too afraid to come forward fearing arrest or deportation.

The Salvation Army, a charity, has estimated that more than 1,000 people are brought to Australia each year as modern day slaves.

Jenny Stangar from the Salvation Army believes that slavery in Australia has become a serious concern.

"We have a lot of information about people not necessarily having been trafficked to Australia but some have been trafficked, and some people get here and they wind up in a situation of forced labor, which means that they are working under some kind of threat," said Stangar. "And it is essentially a situation where they have lost their free will. They cannot leave that job."

The victims of human trafficking come in all ages and from a range of countries, including Thailand, Korea and China. Others have traveled from Eastern Europe and India.

Organized criminal gangs often lure them with promises of a happy, new life in Australia.

But Fiona David, a human trafficking consultant who has worked for the United Nations, says many end up in misery.

"The sorts of factors that are relevant are people coming to Australia having paid very large fees to recruiters, then finding themselves in situations of crippling debt. They may be, I guess, inherently vulnerable perhaps because of their family situation, family obligations. It is not about locks and chains. It is much more subtle ways of controlling people's behavior," said David.

Activists meeting in Sydney are calling on the Australian government to conduct more research to gauge the true scale of the problem and to coordinate a new national plan to protect vulnerable foreign workers. The Salvation Army says it believes the global financial crisis has made international forced labor an issue.

The United Nations estimates that human trafficking has become a $30 billion industry, where about two million victims are trafficked annually around the world.