Human trafficking is something often thought of as the scourge of faraway places, down dingy alleyways beneath the seedy underbellies of developing nations.
But on Wednesday night some of Australia’s most influential people, a world removed from the realities of modern slavery, came face to face with a woman forced into servitude in their patch.
Sandra was lured to Sydney from her home in the Pacific Islands in 2005 with the promise of Australian residency. All she had to do was work as a housekeeper for the family that secured her plane ticket.
For the next three years, Sandra worked for no pay. She cooked, cleaned, took care fo the children and massaged the lady of the house. She was threatened, abused and unable to leave or contact her family.
“I am living proof that slavery happens in Australia,” Sandra told the crowd of Sydney’s elite.
Freedom Hub, the host for the evening, is the only Australian charity dedicated to rebuilding the lives of victims of slavery in Sydney.
At least 3000 people are living as slaves in Australia, according to the 2013 Global Slavery Index.
In March 2013, the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Slavery, Slavery-like Conditions and People Trafficking) Act 2013 reformed the national response to human trafficking by expanding the definition beyond sexual slavery to include forced labour, marriage, organ trafficking, and the broader offence of servitude.
But little assistance is available to the victims, predominantly women, who escape.
“I just couldn’t believe in this day and age slavery was still a huge problem,” Freedom Hub’s founder Sally Irwin said.
Mrs Irwin, the wife of Australia’s then defence attache in Berlin, Captain Gavin Irwin RAN, saw the effects of slavery while she was volunteering in that city.
“I thought: ‘What can I do here?’ ” she said.
Freedom Hub now supports 14 women who escaped forced servitude after being trafficked to Australia from every corner of the world. Most found their way to the organisation via the Salvation Army.
Alarmingly, two women are second generation Australians of south-east Asian and Indian background.
Freedom Hub expects the number to swell to almost 40 by the end of the year.
The registered charity offers these women one-on-one mentoring, courses in English, communication and employment skills, and support to combat the insecurities and emotional scarring that were the legacies of their abuse.
Mrs Irwin had attracted high profile benefactors to expand the program, such as Pacific Equity Partners’ managing director Tim Sims, who called on those gathered at the event to use their impressive influence and money to contribute to the charity.
Director of Fairfax Media, Wal-Mart and the Reserve Bank of Australia Roger Corbett is also a key supporter of the charity.
The warehouse space that hosted the event had been donated by anonymous supporters to house the Freedom Hub Cafe for the foreseeable future, the profits of which would go to expanding support and education programs.
The cash and in-kind donations on the night were just the beginning. A custom made $20,000 diamond, jade and white gold necklace designed by jeweller Fairfax & Roberts was offered to the highest bidder.
But the message Mrs Irwin and Mr Sims pushed the hardest was the need for these movers and shakers to find a place for these women in their businesses. Through employment opportunities and support structures, the women would be able to attain the financial independence and personal freedom they were previously robbed of.
“Every one of those jobs would be a blow to the evil and destructiveness of modern slavery,” Mr Sims said.