Many Kiwi businesses oblivious to modern slavery issues, are buying risky goods, survey finds as Government action languishes

New survey results obtained by Newshub reveal many Kiwi businesses are purchasing products likely to have been made through modern slavery, with some completely unaware of the risk.

World Vision, which commissioned the survey, is calling the research an indictment of New Zealand's commitment to human rights and wants the Government to press ahead with its modern slavery work.

"Most Kiwi businesses have not taken any steps to address modern slavery in their supply chains and what's even worse is that New Zealand doesn't have a law in place to require them to do so," said World Vision New Zealand head of advocacy and justice Rebekah Armstrong.

"It's the 21st Century and we should all have zero tolerance for slavery. It's time New Zealand led from the front and introduced legislation to guide our business community to do the right thing and protect the hard-working people who make the products we buy every day."

Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood isn't committing to having legislation before the House before the election and there's no clear indication of when a Bill may emerge - if at all.

"Ministers have been considering advice and options from officials and I hope to provide more clarity on the way forward with this work in the near future," Wood told Newshub.

World Vision is on Sunday publishing a report with the results of a survey of 214 mostly small New Zealand businesses on their efforts to identify and address modern slavery issues in their supply chains.

Modern slavery can include forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage, slavery, and human trafficking domestically and internationally. World Vision says 50 million people are estimated to be trapped in these situations worldwide, many of whom are forced to produce products.

The survey found nearly all businesses purchase products or services likely to be made using child or forced labour. 

These include information & communication technology (ICT) products, electronics, textiles, and apparel.

World Vision has previously reported that garments, electronics, and footwear are three items most at risk of having been made through slavery. Many of the risky products imported into New Zealand in 2019 were from China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Bangladesh

The survey was conducted in late 2022 with 86 percent of respondents having fewer than 20 employees. This is intended to reflect the country's business community which is made up of 97 percent small businesses. The results were weighted to be representative.

The businesses surveyed include those in retail (14 percent), professional services (11 percent), construction (9 percent) and agriculture (7 percent).

Almost half of the businesses surveyed (45 percent) had little to no idea about what happened in their supplier's supplier's chain (what is referred to as Tier 2 suppliers). Only 19 percent felt they had a lot of visibility about Tier 2 suppliers.

Just 22 percent of businesses felt they had a strong understanding of modern slavery risks in their supply chains, with 44 percent having some understanding, and 31 percent having little to no understanding. The survey revealed 10 percent of businesses weren't even aware of a risk.

Businesses were also presented with 10 different initiatives that could be taken to identify and manage modern slavery risks. 

They include establishing a supplier code, including modern slavery clauses in contracts, and establishing ways people can report modern slavery complaints.

The survey results show 70 percent of the businesses did not have any initiatives or policies, with 49 percent not planning any. Twenty-one percent don't currently have any policies but are planning to implement something. 

"Ethical business practice is just part of doing business in the world today and consumers expect businesses to understand their supply chains and to address modern slavery and other human rights risks," said Armstrong.

"New Zealand businesses risk being out of step with key trading partners if they continue with commercial practices as though modern slavery doesn’t exist."

Michael Wood is the Workplace Relations and Safety Minister.
Michael Wood is the Workplace Relations and Safety Minister. Photo credit: Newshub.

The Government undertook consultation last year on a proposal to require organisations to take action if they become aware of modern slavery or worker exploitation in their supply chains. 

Medium and large organisations would also have to disclose the steps they were taking to address it, while large businesses would have to do due diligence. 

However, since the consultation came back, there's been little news of progress. The minister's office said in March that an update was expected "in the coming weeks", but nothing has been announced.

Wood told Newshub this week modern slavery is a "complex issue" and the Government needs to ensure "any policy in this area has been well thought out and consulted on to ensure we have support across stakeholders, including business".

He said the Government wanted to "avoid any adverse unintended consequences as much as possible". 

"The Government undertook public consultation on proposed legislation to address modern slavery and worker exploitation in the operations and supply chains of New Zealand organisations. Ministers have been considering advice and options from officials and I hope to provide more clarity on the way forward with this work in the near future."

The Labour Party's 2020 election manifesto included a commitment to explore the implementation of modern slavery legislation in New Zealand. 

A World Vision poll earlier this year found eight in 10 Kiwis supported New Zealand introducing new legislation to require businesses to verify there are no signs of modern slavery in their supply chains.

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

A report from World Vision in 2021 found New Zealand households spent an average of $34 a week on goods linked to such practices in 2019. That year, New Zealand imported more than $3.1 billion in risky products from 44 countries.

The Ministry of  Business, Innovation and Employment has said modern slavery is also happening in New Zealand.