Head of modern slavery advocacy group 'not proud' of New Zealand's track record on the issue

Businesses could soon face fines if they don't take action to investigate and prevent slavery and exploitation in their supply chains. 

The head of a group tackling the issue, Rob Fyfe, says he's not proud of New Zealand's track record but change is coming. 

Just this week an undercover investigation documented children as young as 10 weilding machetes to harvest cocoa - child labour alleged to be linked to the world-famous Cadbury brand. 

In New Zealand, we're estimated to spend $34 every week on goods linked to slave labour.

Former detective and human rights investigator Gary Shaw has witnessed all forms of it. 

"I have investigated cases of people who were literally chained to their sewing machine or their bed where they were literally forced to make garments," he said.

Shaw, who now works with clothing brand Kathmandu, is part of a group that on Friday delivered a proposal for new laws. 

"New Zealanders are currently buying goods and services that are at some level made, in some cases, by people who are in forms of exploitation and slavery."

Rebekah Armstrong, World Vision's head of advocacy and justice, says it comes down to consumer ignorance.

"We don't know as consumers what we are buying that is associated potentially with the conditions of people living in slavery."

So the onus is being put on business to have oversight - and fines for failure are likely.

"We are not looking at additional criminal penalties being brought into this regime, but we think there probably is a role for financial penalties," says Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood.

The proposal implicates all businesses. Depending on annual revenue, responsibilities include:

  • "Taking reasonable action" if they became aware of slavery in their international supply chains. 
  • "Undertaking due diligence" to prevent it in New Zealand.
  • "Disclosing steps" they're taking to address slavery in their international operations. 

The UK introduced the anti-slavery rules in 2015, Australia in 2018. New Zealand lagged behind. 

"The proposal we've come up with will allow us to move back to the forefront of what's happening globally but at the moment, yes - we're not in the position I would feel proud of personally," said Fyfe.

This is just a proposal which will be consulted on - but the Minister wants legislation in place by September next year. 

A Government agency or possibly a Commissioner will be put in charge to make sure businesses follow the rules.