Modern slavery: MPs back introducing legislation 'as soon as possible' after petition signed by thousands

A cross-party committee of MPs is backing the introduction of modern slavery legislation in New Zealand in response to a petition signed by thousands of Kiwis.

Michael Wood, the Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety, in June last year accepted a petition from Trade Aid and World Vision calling for parliamentarians to introduce legislation requiring public and private entities to report on the risks of modern slavery in their supply chains and what actions they are taking to address them.

The groups say up to 40 million people globally are caught up in modern slavery, which can include forced labour, human trafficking, sexual exploitation and debt bondage. Other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, have recently passed laws requiring entities to assess their supply chains. 

Parliament's Petitions Committee has been considering the petition and last week published a report recommending the Government "bring legislation addressing modern slavery before the House as soon as possible while allowing for adequate policy development and public consideration". 

The committee, which is made up of members from National, Labour, ACT and the Greens, heard from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and the Human Rights Commission (HRC) on the petition.

"We wish to note that the petitioners, the Human Rights Commission, and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment were united in a view that modern slavery is a serious problem in international and domestic supply chains," the committee said. 

"Each entity also acknowledged gaps in New Zealand’s current regime. With that consensus in mind, we are pleased that the Government is considering legislation to address modern slavery."

Wood last year released an action plan outlining the Government's approach to addressing modern forms of slavery. That included directing MBIE to consider "legislation requiring businesses to report publicly on transparency in supply chains, to help eliminate practices of modern slavery". 

He convened the Modern Slavery Leadership Advisory Group in June to provide advice to Government on possible legislation. Options are expected to be released for public consultation in the coming month. 

Wood accepting the petition last year.
Wood accepting the petition last year. Photo credit: World Vision.

Grant Bayldon, the executive director of World Vision, welcomed the committee's report, saying the group "is committed to supporting the New Zealand Government to put the best legislation possible in place".

Trade Aid chief executive Geoff White said legislation is long overdue. 

"New Zealanders and the business community support this legislation and we welcome the Government taking action. We look forward to meaningful legislation that helps to eliminate the risk of modern slavery in our supply chains"

Saunoamaali’i Sumeo, Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner at the Human Rights Commission, said the committee's recommendation was "such a great outcome".

"Stamping out modern slavery and exploitation is complex and requires a coordinated response between government, businesses, unions, communities, and NGOs. The Human Rights Commission is committed to assisting in this process," Sumeo said.

"At the heart of any legislation, we must not forget that everyone has the human right to fair and just working conditions and to live free from inhuman and degrading treatment."

In its submission to the committee in October, MBIE said it was "developing options as fast as practicable" in line with policy objectives, including to reduce the prevalence of modern slavery internationally, raise awareness of the issue, and drive behavioural and cultural change.

"MBIE is currently considering a number of regulatory design elements that could form part of a legislative package to address modern slavery. 

"Consistent with the recommendations from Trade Aid and World Vision New Zealand, we are drawing from the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights when considering options."

It said it was considering the obligations that would be placed on businesses - such as transparency, reporting requirements and due diligence - which entities would fall within the scope of the legislation, whether an office or commissioner would need to be set up with oversight, how the legislation would interact with other tools to address modern slavery, and potential penalties. 

Modern slavery is occurring in New Zealand, MBIE said, with most of the 51 trafficking victims identified here to date being migrant men trafficked for the purpose of labour exploitation. 

"This is unlikely to reflect the full spectrum of people who are subject to modern slavery in New Zealand, as the hidden nature of these crimes means that vulnerable people are less likely, or able, to seek help or report their experience," the ministry said.

It cited research from Walk Free that in 2016 around 3000 people in New Zealand "were in conditions of modern slavery", while a report from World Vision last year found the average Kiwi household spends about $34 a week "on industries whose products are implicated in modern slavery".

While the ministry noted the Government has taken several steps to address migration exploitation domestically - including a new visa to support migrants leave exploitative situations quickly while lawfully remaining in New Zealand - it said there is a gap in Aotearoa's "measures regarding modern slavery in international supply chains". 

It said these supply chains are "harder for us to directly control" and have become "more complex and larger in size" over recent decades as production has become more globalised.

"These developments mean that tackling modern slavery will take a collective global effort, with a particular focus on global supply chains at the national level."

In developing its policy, MBIE said it would be informed by other countries which have recently introduced legislation to address modern slavery in supply chains. 

It also wanted to be "mindful of the need to balance obligations that lead to meaningful results and the burden placed on businesses". Expertise from the Modern Slavery Leadership Group, chaired by former Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fye, would support this.