Veil of Secrecy, Vortex of Shame: Australia must Confront the very Real Issue of Sex Trafficking


by Sarah Barrand


Executive Summary

  • This article uses the Queensland Labour Trade as a historical reference point for reflecting on the way in which human sex trafficking operates comparatively today.
  • Through various laws and legislations made throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries regarding immigration and foreign labour, sex trafficking has become shrouded in secrecy and disgust to the extent of denial of existence.
  • This article argues that the alarming and growing rate of sex trafficking in Australia should be countered by an immense increase in education about the issue. Such action can create awareness, alter attitudes, create social mobility, and consequently help to eradicate this problem.
  • The challenge is to create a new collective ideology in which sex and prostitution can become a public issue to eliminate secrecy and aid in the fight against sex trafficking.

In the early 1700s, Edmund Burke stated that ‘in this day and age slavery is a weed that grows in every soil’. Who could have imagined that, some 300 years later, in a world screaming for equality, that the soil of exploitation would remain so fertile?  Since the European settlement of Australia in 1788, human sex trafficking has been an unfathomably large and secretive part of Australian history.  According to the United Nations, as of 2011 sex trafficking was identified as the world’s fastest growing crime; and it is the western world, including Australia, who are the primary consumers.  Throughout the twentieth century, after the initial eradication of foreign labour, there was a psychological transformation in regards to human sex trafficking.  This transformation, however, was psychologically regressive: from acceptance to denial; from public to private; from spoken to silent; from education to ignorance. National pride, the negative perceptions that envelop prostitution, and the lack of education on this topic in Australia have forced human sex trafficking underground.  And it is due to this lack of social awareness that Australians continue to perceive sex trafficking as an ‘international’ or ‘foreign’ issue in which we have little to no involvement.  Currently, however, there are hundreds of women trafficked into Australia each year, most of whom are forced against their will. Until there is social change and raised education within this society there can be no hope for political and cultural change in the future.

From as early as 1842, the demand for labour in Queensland transformed many Australians into willing but secretive participants of the kidnapping, or ‘blackbirding’, trade.  From the1840s until the late 1860s, thousands of native non-European labourers were recruited from Asiatic countries, under a veil of secrecy, for ‘miscellaneous employment’.  This ‘blackbirding’ was Australia’s inception to the global human trafficking network; the majority of workers were lured aboard the labour ships by trickery, forced into conscription, or contractually deceived.  Although ‘blackbirding’ primarily focused on the acquisition of labour for the sugar cane industry, this ‘miscellaneous employment’ also included the trafficking of young women to work in conditions of semi-slavery in the brothels of Australian colonies. Just as the non-European labourers were deceived so, too, the majority of the Australian public remained ignorant as the ‘indentured labour trade’ in Queensland operated under an almost impenetrable haze of deception and trickery.

As thousands of labourers began to flood into Queensland in the 1850s, the wider Australian public started to become aware of the potential evils of this foreign labour trade. Suspicions of kidnapping, violence, rape, and forced prostitution were fervent throughout society. Ordinary Australians became avid opponents of this human trafficking and, consequently, the veil of secrecy began to be torn aside. In response to this public upheaval, on 11 February 1863 the Queensland government and Navy began to regulate the introduction of foreign labour intending to ‘cure certain evils’. Although this regulation was anticipated to pacify the public, the evils of the labour trade remained at the forefront of the Australian psyche. On Saturday 22 August 1863, The Courier reported that ‘we shall not be satisfied until we know the circumstances under which trafficking human flesh is being carried on […as…] call it what you will, it simply resolves itself into a branch of the Peruvian slave trade under a milder name’.  The human slave trade became a serious subject in which the colony was deeply interested. In 1868, after prompted investigations, the extreme mortality rates of Polynesian labourers became public knowledge. It was discovered that 90-107 workers out of 1000 were killed in Australia; killed by ‘employers’ by overwork, insufficient or improper food, bad water, and a lack of medical attendance.  The weight of mounting public pressure after this discovery prompted the Queensland government to pass the Polynesian Labourers Act (1868). This act was greatly intertwined with the moralistic concerns of the public. The provisions of this legislation included the assurance that employees fully understood the terms of their engagement, were guaranteed the return to home islands within three years of recruitment, and also introduced minimum scale wages and rations.

Despite this legislation, however, strain continued to mount on the labour trade as complaints about ‘recruitment’ continued to flood in from missionaries in the Pacific Islands. James MacNair, the Presbyterian resident on Erromanga, wrote in October 1868 that ‘real slave traffic carried on amongst these islands’ as ‘kidnapping [was] practised to a most inconceivable extent’. Many of these kinds of letters appealed to public morality and led to investigations that culminated in the public court case of the HMS Rosario versus the ‘blackbirding’ Daphne.  This case, although overturned, demanded the attention of the Australian public, thereby successfully increasing social awareness of the Queensland slave trade.

Through the media, extreme public mobility, and extensive investigation, the Australian colonists were able to enact educational and legislative change within their society. It was their demand that prompted constant renewals to regulations and legislations regarding the Queensland labour trade, until, in 1883, the human slave trade became the most prominent question debated in elections. The general knowledge of these Australians became the protector of the labour classes in the colonies. Although the introduction of the ‘White Australia Policy’ and legislation enforcing ‘kanaka’ reparation in the early twentieth century politically liberated the workers, sadly, it pushed the human flesh trade — particularly sex trafficking — back under a veil of secrecy.  From 1906 onwards, blame for sex trafficking continually shifted between the public, the police, and the government until it was finally pushed underground. These developments provided the conditions in which the trade began to expand and flourish.

Despite countless legislations, treaties, documents, speeches, raids, and laws, today sex trafficking remains the third most lucrative illicit activity worldwide; it is estimated that human trafficking raises approximately US 7 billion for the global market annually, with the biggest potential for expansion. According to a 2010 report by the US Department of State, 800,000 to 900,000 individuals are trafficked each year throughout the world, of whom roughly 70 percent are females destined for sex slavery. Sex trafficking in Australia has become a well established, highly profitable industry that operates not only with considerable impunity, but also enjoys little citizen awareness. Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, trafficking garnered little public attention throughout Australia. Although Australia imposed strict immigration laws at the time of its Federation in 1901, and ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in1948, sadly all that these legislations and treaties achieved was to push the industry further underground into a silent zone until it became mistakenly perceived by Australians as a nonexistent or purely international issue. This perception, however, could not be more false. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, in capturing the trajectories of sex traffic flow, confidently stated in 2009 that Australia was 1 of 21 trafficking destination countries in the ‘High Destination’ category.  And, in 2008, it was estimated that between 300 and 1500 people are trafficked into Australia each year, and of this number 83 percent of these trafficking victims are women working in the sex industry.

Australia’s lethargy, indifference, and vast secrecy regarding sex trafficking has led to a concerning lack of education and awareness in Australia, to the extent in which the action itself remains undefined in Australian psychology. A survey undertaken in 2011 found that 68 percent of surveyed Australians confused people trafficking with people smuggling — two almost mutually exclusive issues.  Australia must take a look back in history, to its original altercation with human trafficking, and re-learn that education and public awareness are a stronger social force than almost any other, as evidenced by the social mobility that prompted the abolition of ‘indentured labour’ in the late ninetieth century.

As the sex trade shifted from a public issue to a private issue, so, too, the perception of responsibility shifted from the public to the government and the police. In the nineteenth century, the abolition of human trafficking and slavery was a status symbol, a symbol of equality and simple human kindness. In the twenty-first century, the abolition of sex slavery still is regarded as a status symbol; however, it is a symbol of shame and disgust, a symbol that Australian national pride does not wish to adorn. This shift in blame can be seen partly as a deflection technique, as society attempts to remove itself from the ‘disgustingness’ associated with sex and especially prostitution.  Australia’s willing blindness, however, has only aided the sex industry as it has created a closed, secretive, sex trade based on exploitation. How, then, can people become educated on an issue that is secretive and profits from a largely denied existence?  For large scale change to occur, there first must be small changes, changes within the knowledge of all Australians. As Nelson Mandela said: ‘education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’. There needs to be a shift from private to public response. There needs to be a shift from disgust to compassion. It is amazing that, in a world and society that prides itself on all forms of equality, on this vital issue we have so far regressed into the past that even our founding fathers have surpassed us.

‘You must start from scratch’, remarked George Blake, ‘if you really want to achieve something’. This evil, which the idle public tolerates, is a reality and statements of repugnance are merely a façade covering a complacency that condones the modern day ownership of slaves. Sex trafficking, of course, is disguising; but what is even more disgusting is that, as a society, we choose to turn a blind eye and remain silent in favour of national pride over basic human rights.


Selected further reading:

Barclay, S 1968, Sex Slavery: A Documentary Report on the International Scene Today, Heinemann, London.

Corris, P 1970, ‘Pacific Island labour migrants in Queensland’, The Journal of Pacific History, vol. 5,  pp. 43-64.

Cree, V.E. 2008, ‘Confront Sex Trafficking: Lessons from History’, International Social Work ,vol. 34, no. 4, pp. 763-776.

Farr, K 2005, Sex Trafficking; The global market of women and children, Worth Publishers, London.

Hunt, D 2007, ‘Hunting the Blackbirder: Ross Lewin and the Royal Navy’, The Journal of Pacific History, vol. 42, no. 1.

Monzini, P 2005, Sex Traffic; Prostitution, Crime and Exploitation, Zed Books Ltd., London.

Munro D & Lal, B 2006, Texts and Contexts: Reflections in Pacific Island Historiography, Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press.

Murthy P & Smith, CL 2010, Women’s Global Health and Human Rights, Jones and Bartlett Publishers LLC, Los Angeles.

‘People Trafficking in Australia’, Australian Institute of Criminology website: http://aic.gov.au/publications/current%20series/tandi/441-460/tandi441.aspx

Rivett, K 1975, Australia and the non white Migrant, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.

Yarwood, AT 1978, Attitudes to Non-European Immigration, Cassell Australia Ltd, Stanmore.

Yarwood, AT 1967, Asian Migration to Australia, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne.



© APH Network and contributors 2012. All rights reserved.


Citation: Sarah Barrand, Veil of Secrecy, Vortex of Shame: Australia must Confront the very Real Issue of Sex Trafficking. Australian Policy and History. October 2012.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/veil-of-secrecy

Permanent link to this article: http://aph.org.au/veil-of-secrecy