New tool to boost understanding of modern slavery

Slavery today may look different to the way it did in the past, but fighting it is as important as ever, says third-year law student and Social Impact Grant recipient, Laura Shackel.

In many ways, Laura is a typical student. She’s interested in everything, passionate about human rights and keen to make a difference in the world.

But until recently, she was also ignorant of the reality of modern slavery in Australia.

‘Aside from the basic portrayal of human trafficking in the media I really didn’t understand what it was,’ she says.

She isn’t alone.

In a country like Australia, modern slavery often hides in plain sight.

Or, as the specialist legal, research and policy centre run out of UTS’s law faculty, Anti-Slavery Australia (ASA) puts it – around 1900 people are living in slavery in Australia at any one time, but only about one in five of those people are ever detected by police.

A prison without bars

At its core, modern slavery is a form coercion – psychological, economic and/or physical – through which one person exploits another for economic or personal gain.

In recognition of the issue, the Modern Slavery Act was passed by federal parliament in 2018.

Since then, high-profile Australian cases have included that of a Brisbane couple who forced a woman to work 6-days-a-week as their domestic servant, or that of a Sydney woman, who lured two Thai sex workers to the city, took their passports and compelled them to work to settle up a ‘debt’ of $45,000.

These prosecutions are dramatic, but victims of modern slavery are rarely physically restrained, explains Laura. Instead, perpetrators exploit their targets using psychological and/or financial pressure, as well as a person’s lack of knowledge about their rights under Australian law.

‘Whatever the particulars of the crime,’ says Laura ‘the main feature of all modern slavery is victims cannot simply leave the situation – that choice has essentially been taken away from them.’

New ways of tackling the issue

A growing number of Australian organisations – read UTS’s Modern Slavery Statement – have audited their supply chains to meet their obligations under the Modern Slavery Act. However, there is still confusion about what constitutes modern slavery in the general public, particularly amongst younger people.

‘Too few people my age understand that when you buy a cotton shirt from a cheap department store it might look nice on the hanger but you are potentially contributing to a long, complicated supply chain – with slavery at its basis,’ says Laura.

To tackle this, she has worked with ASA to develop a toolkit to engage other students with the issue.

‘Understanding is a key part of advocating,’ Laura explains. ‘The work we’ve done at ASA is trying to equip young people with the tools for them to feel more confident campaigning for social justice issues generally, including, but not limited to, an end to modern slavery.’

Based on consultation sessions Laura undertook with her peers, the kit also aims to make modern slavery – and small but impactful ways of targeting it in everyday life – relevant to a younger audience.

This might include something as simple as choosing to avoid fast fashion outlets in favour of embracing retro chic at St Vinnies, talking with friends and family about the issue to raise awareness, or holding a bake sale or other fundraising event to support either ASA or another not-for-profit a student might believe in.

The toolkit produced by Laura reflects the forthright and honest contributions of students in consultation sessions, as well as her own understanding of meaningful but practical impact gleaned from several years working as a volunteer for ASA.

‘Telling people to go out and collect money for an organisation is unlikely to be super effective unless they’re in the first place inspired by the gravity of the issue and really want to make a difference. I really believe university students have the education, the time and the resources to go out and make change.’

 All ASA courses – including a free course for members of the public and a paid course for businesses – are available from the ASA website.

The Problem

Because modern slavery is based on subtle forms of coercion, it is often hidden. Young people and students could be effective advocates against the practice but often lack knowledge of the problem and ways they can contribute to the organisations that fight it.

The Response

Laura Shackel, a third-year law student, has developed a toolkit with Anti-Slavery Australia that is specifically aimed at students to increase their awareness – it’s based on research she undertook with her peers.

What helped accomplish this?

‘There’s an issue with people who aren’t young people creating resources for young people,’ says Laura. ‘The Centre for Social Justice & Inclusion viewed my Social Impact Grant application and saw how important it was to support an undergraduate to do this.’

What has changed as a result?

The Modern Slavery Action Toolkit for Young People will be launched in 2022.

Download full case study

Impact Area



UTS Faculty or Unit



Laura Shackel,
UTS Law student
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