Modern slavery: Government wants to require organisations to address worker exploitation

The Government wants to require organisations to ensure there are no signs of modern slavery in their supply chains and to take action if any evidence of worker exploitation is found.

Described by Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood as "transformative work", the proposals come after years of advocacy by human rights groups who say New Zealand has been "lagging behind the rest of the world" in combating exploitative practices.

Modern slavery can include forced labour, human trafficking, sexual exploitation and debt bondage domestically and internationally. A report from World Vision last year found New Zealand households spent an average of $34 a week on goods linked to such practices in 2019. Worker exploitation relates to breaches of employment standards in New Zealand.

The Government's proposed legislative options, which are now out for public consultation until June 7, would require all organisations to take action if they became aware of modern slavery or worker exploitation.

They'd also have to "undertake due diligence to prevent, mitigate and remedy modern slavery and worker exploitation by New Zealand entities where they are the parent or holding company or have significant contractual control".

Medium and large organisations would have to show how they were taking steps to address the issues in their operations and supply chains.

Large organisations would be required to do due diligence to prevent, mitigate and remedy modern slavery "in their international operations and supply chains, and modern slavery and worker exploitation in their domestic operations and supply chains".

A small-size entity is defined as having annual revenue below $20 million (up to about $495,500 entities), a medium-size entity has annual revenue between $20 million and below $50 million (about 2,200 entities) and a large size-entity has annual revenue above $50 million (about 1450 entities).

"While modern slavery and worker exploitation may appear limited in New Zealand, we know the hidden nature of these crimes means vulnerable people are less likely, or able, to seek help or report their experience," Wood said on Friday. "That’s why we need to ensure we have adequate protections in place."

The minister said Kiwis expect the goods and services they purchase in Aotearoa "are not contributing" to the harm caused by modern slavery. He believes the proposals will prevent the issue in New Zealand and help New Zealand consumers make more informed choices about what they are buying or supporting. 

"Treating people fairly is the New Zealand way and these proposals highlight how we can develop solutions to slavery and worker exploitation, in our domestic and international supply chains. This will support human rights in a transparent and sustainable way."

The Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety.
The Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety. Photo credit: Newshub.

Other countries New Zealand normally compares itself to, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, have also recently passed laws requiring their businesses to assess and report on their supply chains.

Wood acknowledged that New Zealand "needs to join others showing global leadership on these important issues".  

"Increasingly international partners expect New Zealand to be taking action on these issues. It is the right thing to do, it is consistent with Kiwi values, and it will benefit our trade and international relationships."

At the 2020 election, Labour promised it would explore the implementation of modern slavery legislation to eliminate exploitation in supply chains.

In March last year, Wood released an action plan showcasing the steps the Government was taking in approaching the issue of worker exploitation. It came as 85 New Zealand companies sent the minister a letter, urging the Government to act.

A petition signed by thousands of Kiwis was delivered to Wood last year asking him to introduce legislation requiring entities to report on the risks of modern slavery in their supply chains. That ended up being considered by a cross-party committee of MPs who agreed the Government should bring legislation to the House "as soon as possible". 

Wood set up a Modern Slavery Leadership Advisory Group for advice. 

"We’ve worked closely with businesses, non-governmental organisations, unions and academics through our advisory group chaired by Rob Fyfe. These proposals will drive meaningful change," Wood said on Friday.

The group included representatives from businesses like Countdown and Kathmandu, the Human Rights Commission, NGOs like World Vision and Trade Aid, as well as Business NZ and the Council of Trade Unions.

The World Vision report showed that, in 2019, New Zealand imported more than $3.1 billion in risky products from 44 countries. Of those products, 64 percent came from China (about $2 billion), followed by Vietnam, Malaysia and Bangladesh. They came from a number of industries, such as clothing, electronics and toys. 

Modern slavery is occurring in New Zealand, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment said last October, with most of the 51 trafficking victims identified here to date being migrant men trafficked for the purpose of labour exploitation. 

However, that's "unlikely to reflect the full spectrum of people who are subject to modern slavery in New Zealand".

It cited research from Walk Free that in 2016 around 3000 people in New Zealand "were in conditions of modern slavery".