Sugarcane cutters are transported in cattle truck to work in ethanol production, Bahia State, northeastern Brazil, October 2010 (Photo: Ricardo Funari/Brazil Photos/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The scourge of modern slavery – and New Zealand’s yawning inaction

Countries around the world are setting up laws to combat slavery, demanding that companies disclose how their products are made. In New Zealand, the government is yet to commit to do the same, writes Grant Bayldon of World Vision.

Have you ever wondered whose hands have sewn your clothes, assembled your gadgets or made your children’s toys?

Twelve-year-old Karan has some idea. Instead of learning at school, he toiled long hours in a back-street shoe factory. His days were spent with industrial strength chemicals and little protection or ventilation, gluing the soles onto shoes.

None of us want to have any part of enslaving people. Yet many of the 40 million children, women and men estimated to be in modern slavery worldwide are producing the products that – through global supply chains – are in our homes and workplaces here in New Zealand. 

Research just released by World Vision shows that as households we unwittingly spend an average of $34 per week – about the same as our electricity spend – on industries whose products are implicated in modern slavery.

These risky goods are as diverse as bananas from Ecuador, cocoa from Ghana, clothes from Bangladesh, shrimps from Thailand, and Christmas decorations from China.

Right now, there is no requirement in New Zealand law for businesses importing and producing these products to do even the most basic checks.

This “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach means that it’s currently almost impossible for us as Kiwis to have confidence that what we buy and use isn’t supporting slavery. And for businesses that are already doing the right thing, there’s no level playing field that requires their competitors to do the same. Many have signed an open letter calling on the government to act.

Around the world change is happening. Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, the EU and other countries are continuing to set up laws to combat slavery. They are including provisions that require companies to find out and disclose whether people are being enslaved to make their products.  

The changes in those countries are starting to create a ripple effect. As companies shine a light on how the people who do the work to make their products are being treated, abusive practices around the world are starting to be replaced by fairer working conditions. Sunlight is still the best disinfectant.

The New Zealand government has not yet made a commitment to follow other countries in introducing modern slavery legislation. 

Minister for workplace relations Michael Wood has said he will consider this issue. But the time for consideration is rapidly coming to a close; the time for action is here. There are many debatable issues in politics. But whether or not we need a law that ensures people like Karan aren’t being enslaved to make our sneakers can no longer be one of them. We’ve launched a petition to urge the New Zealand government to act.

We look back on the transatlantic slave trade of previous centuries with horror, yet there are more people in modern slavery now than there ever were then. 

One of the most well-known abolitionists of that time, William Wilberforce, said “you can choose to look the other way, but you can never again say that you did not know”. This research means that we now know. It has an important message for government, business and all of us as Kiwis. 

As a country that aspires to treat all people fairly, we urgently need an effective Modern Slavery Act.

In the latest episode of When the Facts Change, Bernard Hickey talks to economist Julie Fry and Anu Kaloti from the Migrant Workers’ Association about how New Zealand is failing to live up to its image as a kind country when it comes to temporary migration. Subscribe and listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

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