SEXUAL servitude legally falls short of ownership and should not be considered a form of slavery, even though it denies a person freedom in fundamental ways, the High Court was told yesterday.
A person could not be convicted of slavery unless they had exercised a “right of ownership” and treated another person as a piece of property, knowing that they were enslaving them, Neil Young, QC, said.
He said there was no legal basis for expanding that traditional definition of slavery to incorporate similar offences such as debt bondage and the trafficking of women.
Mr Young was appearing for Wei Tang, a former Brunswick brothel owner. Ms Tang was convicted in 2006 of 10 counts of possessing and using slaves in relation to five Thai women who had been imported to work for her as prostitutes. Her lawyers argued that she believed she had a contract of employment with the women.
She was sentenced to a minimum of six years’ jail but was released on bail in 2007 when Victoria’s Court of Appeal ordered a retrial. The Crown appealed to the High Court over that decision, and Ms Tang cross-appealed to the High Court asking for an acquittal.
The jury at her trial was told that the Thai women had their passports confiscated and their freedom of movement denied.
The women were told that in coming to Australia they had incurred a “debt” of $45,000, which had to be worked off by servicing up to 900 men, working six days a week. They could earn money for themselves on the seventh day, but their banking cards were locked away so they could not access them alone.
Solicitor-General David Bennett, appearing for the federal Attorney-General, argued that Australia’s anti-slavery laws had been intended to cover sexual servitude if the control over the sex worker was so far-reaching that it effectively amounted to a right of ownership. The hearing is over, with judgement reserved to a date to be fixed.
COMMENT & DEBATE
· A question of bondage PAGE 17
First published in The Age.