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One woman’s mission to end Australia’s hidden slavery problem

03:15pm June 28 2024

Sally Irwin, Founder and Managing Director of The Freedom Hub. (Supplied)

Australia is often hailed as a land of freedom and opportunity, so it might surprise you to learn that right now at least 41,000 people are enslaved across the continent. 

We’re part of a global problem, with more than fifty million* people around the world trapped in modern slavery - forced into labour, marriage, or trafficked for exploitation. 

These numbers, although frightening, don’t capture the full picture. It’s estimated that only one in five victims/survivors come forward; meaning the true scale is likely far larger. 

Sally Irwin, Founder and Managing Director of The Freedom Hub, which is supported by Westpac Foundation, has dedicated the last decade to combating this hidden crisis.

Her journey began fourteen years ago and far from home, in Berlin.

The wife of a diplomat who was posted to the Australian embassy in the German capital, she volunteered at a soup kitchen set up to support Eastern European women who had arrived in the country as hairdressers, but found themselves sold into sex trafficking. 

This eye-opening experience spurred Irwin into action. "My life was a contrast: at night, I was at cocktail parties with diplomats and during the day, I was cleaning blood off young women who were sex trafficking survivors,” she recalls. 

"I spent four years there, and it changed my life forever - I knew I had to do something."

Returning to Australia with no formal qualifications but armed with a newfound awareness and on the ground experience, Irwin faced another shocking realisation: slavery was happening back on her home soil. 

“Most Australians still don’t think it is happening in our country,” she says. 

Soon after, she founded the country's only organisation providing life-long specialised support for all forms of slavery.


A sign showing directions to The Freedom Hub Café. (Supplied)

Modern slavery in Australia exists mostly through forced labour and forced marriages, with the latter making up 60 per cent of current cases. Sometimes, people are are sold off by family members – Irwin recounts helping a woman from the Philippines who was sold by her uncle into a brothel in Australia  - but more often, the perpetrators are largely unknown to the women, describing them as, "complete strangers, fuelled by pure, pure greed."

Forced labour covers a wide range of groups, from backpackers and seasonal harvest workers in Queensland, to cleaners and au pairs. 

Another of The Freedom Hub's alumni is a Pacific Islander woman who applied for a restaurant manager position in Byron Bay. Irwin explains how this woman’s “most exciting opportunity of her life” quickly turned into a nightmare when she was locked up in a garage all day, only brought out to do the dishes at night.

“Unfortunately, if anyone is put at risk, it is the people that are looking for a job: they are trusting, and often have poor English,” Irwin explains. 

The registered charity operates on five pillars designed to support survivors. The key to their success is a survivor-focused approach, in contrast to the government pathways that are largely criminally focused. Instead, the for-purpose organisation focuses on empowerment through trauma-informed care and bespoke success plans. 

"The success plan is our point of difference and is vital because it helps them think about their future.”

“Everyone else - the lawyers, doctors, government - is about their past and what happened to them… this often ends up retraumatising the survivors. We work out a success plan for them, because we are about focusing on their future, and their freedom," she says.

The Freedom Hub’s program covers everything from helping survivors understand their rights, educating them about trauma-recovery resources, and connecting them with community groups, to résumé writing classes, teaching them financial independence and helping them secure work through corporate partnerships. 

Often for the first time in a long time, survivors can see a future beyond their trauma - whether it's pursuing education, rebuilding their careers, or integrating back into society.

Success stories show the transformative impact of this approach. Irwin recalls the horrific past of another of her alumni, a Fijian woman who was trafficked and sexually abused when a Brisbane couple “decided they needed a house slave.”

After seven years of support from The Freedom Hub, including helping her secure a part-time job, and raising money for TAFE classes, she not only escaped her abusers but also completed her studies in aged care, allowing her employment and independence. 

Aside from encouraging people to support their onsite ethical café and event venue (100 per cent of the profits go into their survivors’ school), Irwin urges individuals to be mindful, conscious consumers and research the brands they support.

“If it’s cheap, someone is likely not being paid,” she says. 

As The Freedom Hub celebrates its 10th anniversary and expands its reach with new facilities in Parramatta and in Brisbane, Irwin remains committed to her mission. Beyond direct support, she continues to raise awareness and promote a world in which slavery is not just illegal, it’s extinct. 

Westpac Foundation has been proud to support The Freedom Hub since 2020, providing grants and assisting with their efforts to raise awareness with businesses about managing the risk of modern slavery in supply chains.

* Source: The 2023 Global Slavery Index

Marina Gainulina (she/her) is a Content Producer for Westpac Wire. Before joining the team, she was a commercial and editorial content producer and marketer for global luxury brands including Hugo Boss and Tiffany & Co and has almost a decade of experience in marketing and communications.

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