Modern slavery: Government slow to act on needed legislation

13th May 2021

There are estimated to be more than 40 million people living in various forms of slavery today.

This article originally featured on Stuff and was written by Daniel Dunkley. 

OPINION: There are estimated to be more than 40 million people living in various forms of slavery today.

While the British Empire abolished the slave trade in the 1830s, the barbaric practice continues unchecked in many parts of the modern world, unseen, unheard, and often ignored.

The issue of forced labour was brought to the fore in recent weeks by Parliament’s declaration of “severe human rights abuses” in Xinjiang, China. Human rights groups have highlighted the mass detention and forced labour imposed on the region’s Muslim minority Uyghur population.

According to the United Nations, more than one million Uyghur Muslims have been detained in Xinjiang. United States think-tank the Center for Global Policy estimates that more than 500,000 people have been transported against their will to pick cotton – charges denied by Beijing.

Humanitarian organisation World Vision estimates that $3 billion in products linked to modern slavery find their way onto New Zealand shelves each year. From clothes to children’s toys, many seemingly innocent items that appear in our shops have sinister origins.

World Vision estimates that New Zealanders spend about $1700 a year on products linked to forced labour, with a vast proportion of those imports from China.

Other nations have also drawn criticism for their labour practices. Some Ecuadorian fruit producers are said to use child workers, while Malaysian personal protection equipment makers have used bonded labour.

The global supply chain is tainted. While the average consumer is blissfully unaware of the horrors associated with producing many global goods, national governments have begun to impose and strengthen their anti-slavery legislation.

Britain introduced its Modern Slavery Act in 2015 and recently updated the law amid recent reports from China. The legislation requires corporates to publish a statement on their website outlining that they have reviewed their supply chain for slavery and human trafficking risks. Firms that do not comply are hit with fines, but Britain’s law has been criticised as lacking teeth.

Australia passed its Modern Slavery Act in 2018. It requires companies with a turnover of A$100 million (NZ$198m) or more to report on the risks of forced labour in their operations and supply chains. Australian ministers are reviewing tighter restrictions and harsher penalties for companies guilty of benefiting from human rights violations.

Australia’s law requires large companies to detail and assess modern slavery risks and outline the effectiveness of their actions. At the end of last year, the British followed the Aussie blueprint, introducing more prescriptive compulsory reporting requirements around slavery risks and supply chain governance.

In addition, Britain, the US, and Australia have each drafted laws to stop the importation of goods from Xinjiang and other Chinese regions said to exploit forced labour. In its final days, the Donald Trump administration banned the import of cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang.

While human rights groups have criticised Australia and Britain for not doing enough, calling for harsher penalties, New Zealand lags even further behind. We have no modern slavery legislation in place and no sanctions on goods arriving from areas suspected of human rights abuses.

In March, a group of 85 Kiwi business organisations signed a letter to ask the Government to pass modern slavery legislation. Signatories included The Warehouse, Bunnings, and Macpac. The group wants the Government to act on the draft “action plan” it has drawn up to tackle the problem.

The Government’s action plan was published in March. Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood outlined 28 “actions” the Government is taking in the next four years, including awareness-raising and training, a strengthening of legislative settings, and greater international cooperation. Wood has signalled that he may make a decision on a modern slavery act by the end of the year.

Barry Coates, a signatory of the open letter to the Government and founder of ethical investment platform, Mindful Money, says there is evidence of labour exploitation across Kiwi companies’ supply chains.

He cites bonded labour on fishing vessels and migrant workers being paid low wages and bonded through visas as some of the issues closer to home.

“They are the tip of the iceberg,” Coates says. He believes “few New Zealand companies know with any degree of assurance whether or not they have those problems”.

Coates backs calls for specific legislation that would require companies to take greater responsibility for their supply chains. He believes there is a “groundswell of support” from responsible companies and the fund management community.

“There needs to be transparency and accountability for the conditions under which our products are made. This is essential to provide information and assurances to consumers,” he adds.

The action plan on modern slavery is a step in the right direction for Aotearoa, but the lack of real action to date does not reflect well on the country. As our allies tighten and refine their stance on forced labour, New Zealand’s position seems comparatively vague and half-hearted.

Businesses taking a stance on this issue are doing the right thing by the public and their shareholders. But when corporate executives are forced to take the initiative and show moral leadership on such an important human rights issue, then our elected policymakers have failed.

The time to act on modern slavery was years ago. How many more tainted goods will end up in Kiwi hands before we put things right?