WATERLOO: For someone who works with survivors of modern slavery, Sally Irwin is remarkably optimistic.
“We’re on the cusp of seeing massive change,” she says, since Australia’s Modern Slavery Act came into force in 2019.
Ms Irwin campaigned long and hard for the introduction of the Australian Act. It was a journey that began when she was posted to Germany alongside her diplomat husband.
Without the ability to speak German or permission to work, Ms Irwin turned to volunteering at a small organisation in Berlin, helping young women tricked into coming from abroad and coerced into sex work. It was an eye-opening experience that affected her deeply.
“My life had changed from that point on. I knew I couldn’t just go back to the corporate world and pretend nothing had happened,” she said.
Ms Irwin was driven to continue supporting survivors once she returned home. Mobilising her skills from many years of retail management, she established the Freedom Hub: a social enterprise and survivor support service. Based in Waterloo, the commercial side of the organisation – a café, shop and events venue – raises money for the charity side, a “survivor school” that equips slavery survivors with trauma support, practical training such as computer and English classes, and life skills to adapt to independent living in Australia.
The Freedom Hub started out supporting three survivors in 2014 and now has 76 people in its care. Unlike most other services for slavery survivors, the organisation’s care is ongoing. It still helps out clients from years ago if they struggle with unexpected bills or other challenges.
In addition to working directly with survivors, the Freedom Hub works with government and businesses to tackle modern slavery at its roots. After lobbying government to create the Modern Slavery Act, the organisation now supports businesses to understand their reporting obligations. The Act requires large businesses to report on their supply chains, aiming to stamp out forced labour.
According to the International Labour Organisation, more than 40 million people globally are experiencing modern slavery, and 75 per cent are living in the Asia-Pacific region – “Australia’s shopping ground,” Ms Irwin said.
“If Australian consumers get their act together with the supply chain, we can dramatically impact global slavery,” she said.
“No matter where you are, you can actually make a difference.”
The Freedom Hub café is at 283 Young Street, Waterloo. Shoppers can buy slavery-free chocolate, coffee and more at the café or online at www.freedomhub.org. Donations to the Survivor School can also be made through the website.