Some international students ‘at risk of modern slavery’

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Some international students are on a slippery slope to slavery and Covid-19 has exacerbated the risk, an analysis by the University of Sydney has found.

The university says overseas students, particularly those with casual hospitality and cleaning jobs, are vulnerable to exploitation. While distinct from slavery, underpayment can be a “precursor” to – and in some cases a feature of – “the worst forms” of modern slavery.

These include “debt bondage” – where students are strong-armed into working to meet the inflated repayment terms of loans for fees or living expenses – and “forced labour”, where students feel unable to quit jobs because of “coercion, threat or deception”.

Consultations for Sydney’s first modern slavery statement have also highlighted the risk of forced marriages stymying people’s university studies.

The statement elucidates on students’ apparent tolerance for exploitation and worse. “International students can maintain a peer frame of reference, receiving incorrect information on working rights and acceptable conditions from fellow international students,” it says.

“This, combined with multiple vulnerabilities common to many temporary migrants, means that they may be effectively locked into a labour market separate from the one that legal institutions were intended to create and maintain.”

The pandemic has elevated the propensity for exploitation from both sides. “Students [are] increasingly desperate for income in a difficult labour market with stressed businesses looking for ways to cut costs,” the statement says.

Sydney is among several universities and more than 1,300 organisations that have registered modern slavery statements, as required under Australia’s federal Modern Slavery Act. The law, which came into force in 2019, obliges large employers to outline their plans to assess and address modern slavery risks in their global operations and supply chains.

Sydney’s “supply chain risk overview” found that 49 per cent of its spending was in categories potentially linked to modern slavery risks, including construction, maintenance, security, cleaning and information technology.

The university has updated its contract templates to include modern slavery clauses and require suppliers to comply with a revised statement of business ethics. It has revisited 86 per cent of 400-plus contracts prioritised for renegotiation or variation, the statement says, and is negotiating amendments to “affiliation agreements” with student organisations that run on-campus food outlets.

The university has also embedded modern slavery clauses in research agreement templates and is amending policies and procedures in areas such as clinical trials and human ethics. “While we have not identified instances of modern slavery practices linked to our research activities, the complex and global nature of modern slavery means [they] are not immune,” the statement says.

“From using lab consumables made with potential forced labour to…research in countries with weak rule of law, modern slavery risks can occur beyond the reach and control of any organisation.”

Vice-chancellor Stephen Garton said the university wanted to remove any contribution to slavery in its core education and research activities as well as its supply chain. “Addressing modern slavery goes to the moral heart of what we stand for,” he said in a video launching the statement.

A historian, Professor Garton said an estimated 40 million people – “more than ever before” – were experiencing conditions of slavery more than 200 years after Denmark, Norway and England took the first steps to stamp out the slave trade. “While many people believe slavery to be abolished, modern day slavery continues to exist in every country in the world,” he said.

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