Health workers are being urged to identify and help victims of slavery in New Zealand, experts writing in the latest New Zealand Medical Journal say. Modern forms of slavery include everything from worker exploitation to underage or forced marriage, and are so well-hidden they could be happening right under our noses.
Because of their unique accessibility to patients, doctors and health workers are in a position where they can find and potentially aid those suffering from abusive treatment. “Slavery is a violation of many human rights, including the right to health,” says the study’s lead author, Dr Paula King. “Doctors and other health workers hold a privileged position in the health sector and can, and should be, leading advocates for change at government, health system and organisational levels to address slavery and its health consequences.”
King, a clinical research fellow at the University of Otago in Wellington and a public health physician, describes slavery as a “neglected issue within the health system” which can have severe health consequences. “Victims are at increased risk of acute and chronic physical and mental health problems, injuries from dangerous living or working conditions, or physical or sexual abuse, so they are likely to come into contact with health workers,” she says.
The problem revolves around identification, and being able to spot slavery. “We know that health workers may have had contact with people in situations of slavery, but may not have had the knowledge, resources or skills to identify victims and offer effective help,” King points out.
By educating health workers on warning signs, the experts believe slavery in New Zealand can be reduced. Looking for red flags such as unexplained injuries, work superiors rushing treatments and contradictions in stories is the first step, the research states.
Associate professor at the University of Auckland’s Business School and one of the study’s authors, Dr Christina Stringer, wrote a report on worker exploitation last year. The report looked at migrant and locally-born workers throughout a range of industries, and found that in many sectors, worker exploitation was commonplace. “One migrant we interviewed was beaten up in an orchard by his contractor, while another was physically assaulted and denied sufficient food; he ran away and was found sleeping on the streets in a distressed state,” Dr Stringer says. “There is also evidence of exploitation in the health and aged-care sectors themselves.”
In the last six months, over 70 businesses were banned from hiring migrant workers after breaching labour laws.