Modern slavery: Petition accepted by Michael Wood as Government convenes group to advise on possible legislation

Michelia Miles from Trade Aid, Minister Michael Wood, Grant Bayldon from World Vision.
Michelia Miles from Trade Aid, Minister Michael Wood, Grant Bayldon from World Vision. Photo credit: World Vision.

Politicians from across Parliament turned out on Tuesday for the presentation of a petition calling for modern slavery legislation. 

Signed by more than 37,000 Kiwis and organised by Trade Aid and World Vision, the petition asks MPs to introduce legislation requiring public and private entities to report on risks of modern slavery in their supply chains, as well as what they are doing to address such risks. 

Up to 40 million people worldwide are caught up in modern slavery, which can include forced labour, human trafficking, sexual exploitation and debt bondage. While other countries - like the United Kingdom and Australia - have recently passed legislation requiring businesses to check their supply chains, New Zealand has not. 

The petition was accepted outside Parliament on Tuesday by Michael Wood, the Labour MP for Mt Roskill and Minister of Workplace Relations and Safety. A number of other politicians from Labour, National and the Greens were also present. 

"Freedom is at the heart of what is to be fully human, the ability to live out our lives to the fullest possible extent," Wood said. "In the absence of freedom, we belittle not just the people whose freedom is taken away, but if we are part of the supply chains that allow that to happen, we belittle ourselves as well. There is an urgent imperative to act on this issue."

He acknowledged other countries are taking action and said he had convened the Modern Slavery Leadership Advisory Group over the last week.

Chaired by businessman Rob Fyfe, Wood said the group will "formally advise the Government on the best way of taking this issue and possible legislation forward". The minister is looking to decide on whether to move forward with legislation before the end of the year. 

The Government released an action plan in March on the Government's approach to addressing modern forms of slavery. 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". 

Among the members of the newly-formed group is Kiri Hannifin, the general manager of corporate affairs, quality, safety and sustainability at Countdown, and Kirk Hope, the chief executive of Business NZ.

In its 2020 election manifesto, Labour said it was committed to "exploring the implementation of modern slavery legislation in New Zealand to eliminate exploitation in supply chains".

Grant Bayldon, the national director of World Vision, said on Tuesday that having 40 million in modern slavery was "just not acceptable" and legislation "will have a positive impact for the most vulnerable in our global community".

Trade Aid chief executive Geoff White said legislation was a "long time coming". 

"We join a global movement that is seeing firm action and positive outcomes. This Modern Slavery Act levels the business playing field and means consumers can expect slavery-free goods."

More than 37,000 people signed the petition.
More than 37,000 people signed the petition. Photo credit: World Vision.

The petition was accompanied by an open letter signed by 110 businesses, including Bunnings, Foodstuffs and the Warehouse Group. 

"Modern slavery goes against our Kiwi values," the letter says. "New Zealand's identity as a nation is built on kindness, fairness, equality, and sustainability."

"As New Zealand continues to trade on these credentials, showing leadership on addressing modern slavery through ensuring its companies and public sector are meeting global labour rights standards, becomes more important."

In April, World Vision published a report showing $3.1 billion of risky products - meaning those likely to be connected to forced labour or child labour - were imported into the country in 2019.

Bayldon said at the time that it showed why New Zealand needed to introduce modern slavery legislation, noting it was "very difficult" for Kiwis to currently identify which products were linked to the practices. 

"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."

The issue of forced labour has also been brought to the fore this year with debate over China's treatment of the Uighur people in Xinjiang. There have been calls for New Zealand to stop importing goods from the Chinese region.