Kiwis spending $34 a week on products linked to slavery, research finds

Kiwis are "unwittingly" spending on average $34 a week on products linked to modern slavery, new research has found.

World Vision on Thursday published a report which shows New Zealand imported more than $3.1 billion of "risky products" in 2019, making up more than 5 percent of the country's total imports. A risky product or good is one "highly likely" to be connected to forced labour or child labour. 

The research says that means a New Zealand household is spending on average $34 every week on these goods, slightly less than what they pay for electricity. 

The risky products were imported from 44 countries, with 64 percent coming from China - amounting to about $2 billion - followed by Vietnam, Malaysia, and Bangladesh. The goods are coming from a range of industries, with clothes, electronics, footwear, toys and textiles being our highest-spend risky goods in 2019.

"We see children involved in garment manufacturing, often in back-street factories, where they are not able to finish their schooling and where conditions are extremely onerous on them," World Vision director Grant Bayldon told Newshub. "We also see adults in forced labour in situations where they have no choice but to work in the industry. "

Bayldon says the research shows why New Zealand needs modern slavery legislation. Currently, he says, it's "very difficult for Kiwis" to find out if products they are looking at purchasing are linked to forced or child labour and many buying goods linked to slavery "unwittingly". Companies are also not required to check their supply chains are contributing to slavery, he says.

Bayldon said legislation could require businesses to understand the risks of modern slavery in their puchasing, report on those risks and take action to address them. That would give consumers more information about what they are buying and how it was manufactured.

"We have seen other countries, like Australia, the UK, and other trading partners already move on this. It's not difficult to do and really New Zealand is long overdue to put an Act in place.

"I think no New Zealanders want to be part of enslaving people just to provide toys for their children, coffee for themselves, clothes, because there are alternatives to that. There are alternatives where people are respected and they are not enslaved to do that."

Thursday's report says New Zealand is "lagging behind the rest of the world". 

"While commitments have been made, to date, no action has progressed. A Modern Slavery Act for New Zealand should consider all global developments taking place, including human rights due diligence in Europe, the UK and Australian Modern Slavery acts, and the banning of imports linked to forced labour."

In March, Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood released an action plan highlighting the Government's approach to combating forced labour, people trafficking and slavery. It outlines 28 actions agencies are taking, with a key theme being the elimination of modern slavey from supply chains.

"As our world has become increasingly interconnected, we’re taking action to ensure companies aren’t contributing to problems elsewhere, like the exploitation of workers in firms that supply New Zealand companies and consumers."

The action plan mentions that the UK and Australia have introduced legislation requiring businesses to report on what they're doing to address slavery in their supply chains. 

"New Zealand will consider whether such an approach would be effective in our context."

One of the actions is to "consider introducing legislation requiring businesses to report publicly on transparency in supply chains, to help eliminate practices of modern slavery".

Michael Wood.
Michael Wood. Photo credit: The AM Show.

In March, 85 New Zealand companies signed a letter to Wood urging the Government to act, saying modern slavery goes "against our Kiwi values".

"Numerous governments around the world have already introduced legislative changes to address modern slavery, however, these countries cannot solve modern slavery on their own," the open letter said. "Like-minded countries such as New Zealand - countries that prioritise ethics and sustainability - must similarly show leadership and act to end modern slavery."

Most recently, the United States moved to ban cotton and tomato imports from China's Xinjiang province where it's believed about 1 million Uighurs are subject to forced labour. The United Kingdom also introduced new measures in January to fine businesses which fail to publish obligatory annual modern slavery statements.