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SocietyJuly 24, 2023

Where is New Zealand’s legislation against modern day slavery?

hands tied by a rope red looks dangerous and scary
Image: Archi Banal

Advocates have been asking for New Zealand to implement a law against modern day slavery for years. Why haven’t they got anywhere?

“We know there are millions of people trapped in terrible situations who are involved with producing the products we buy,” says Claire Gray, Tearfund’s senior manager of advocacy and strategy. “Every day that passes is another day their freedom is taken away, but we don’t feel that urgency, because we’re separated from them.” 

Gray has been part of the Tearfund and World Vision team, along with other NGOs, advocating for the New Zealand government to put legislation in place that ensures companies and organisations operating in New Zealand don’t have exploitative labour, referred to as modern day slavery, in their supply chains.

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Tearfund’s Claire Gray has been advocating for change for years (Image: supplied)

The issue has widespread support – eight in 10 New Zealanders are in favour of introducing new legislation. In 2021 the government formed an advisory group to inform the process of writing a piece of legislation. A consultation document launched last year received over 5,600 public submissions which were largely in support. At the end of 2022, then minister for workplace safety Michael Wood said that following the consultation, the legislation was still being amended before a bill was introduced to parliament. In March, a spokesperson for Wood said that an update would be coming in a matter of weeks. Since then, nothing has changed – and the number of days left in this sitting term are running out. 

“It’s not a question of support,” Gray says. “People want action on this, but the legislation seems to have fallen victim to the policy bonfire.”

There’s an opportunity to learn from overseas jurisdictions, including the UK and Canada, where similar laws have been implemented, Gray says. In Australia, where a bill to address modern day slavery was approved under Scott Morrison’s government in 2018, limited enforcement has made it largely ineffective – “not worth the paper it’s written on,” she says. The bill is now being updated. 

From Gray’s perspective as an advocate, a successful piece of legislation needs to apply to entities of all sizes with international supply chains, in the public and private sector. Secondly, there needs to be a due diligence element, with companies required to identify and address risks in supply chains then report their actions. Most crucially “there needs to be penalties for non-compliance with the law in order to create positive change”. 

a hand in a dark black background, looking gritty and threatening
Workers in modern day slavery conditions are often working in places with few laws to protect them. (Photo: Jared Buckley/Tearfund)

Tearfund and World Vision have launched an open letter asking the government to introduce the bill before the end of the sitting period, which Gray encourages people to sign. If that doesn’t happen, she hopes that parties will make sure that addressing international labour shortages are part of their election policies. “We want parties across the spectrum to commit to this,” she says; the wide public support and range of governments around the world who have already committed to regulating international supply chains are reason enough to act. 

The Spinoff asked all parties currently in parliament whether they would support a modern day slavery bill or include it as part of their election platform. “In our manifesto we commit to review legislation for its adequacy to deal with modern slavery and consider within the review of the Trade and Labour Framework whether it sufficiently addresses modern slavery.  “We know that legislation was expected and are very disappointed at the delay,” said Jan Logie, the Green spokesperson for workplace safety, who said the Greens were “deeply concerned” that as much as 5% of imports could be linked to forced or child labour conditions. A spokesperson for current workplace safety minister Carmel Sepuloni said that announcements would be made in due course.

Paul Goldsmith, National’s health and safety spokesperson said that the party would support some form of modern day slavery legislation. “It’s typical of this government that they’ve introduced an advisory group but haven’t even implemented the legislation,” he said, suggesting that a focus on “ineffective” fair pay agreements had eclipsed making law that could lead to change. “It’s such a complicated area – we would like to see something put down and delivered,” he said. Other parties did not respond to inquiries. 

a dark background with hands workingon fabric, perhaps leather.
Garment workers, like this man in Bangladesh, are often producing cheap goods in exploitative conditions (Photo: Jared Buckley/Tearfund)

Around the world, as many as 50 million people are trapped in forced or exploitative labour conditions. It’s estimated that their work contributes as much as US$150 billion to the global economy each year. It’s estimated that the number of people in “modern day slavery” conditions increased by 10 million people between 2016 and 2021. 

While forced labour is illegal in New Zealand, without regulations governing international supply chains it’s possible for the problem to get worse, Gray says. New Zealand is party to a number of international treaties and agreements that tackled the issue of forced and child labour, and offers support to businesses who are seeking to increase the transparency of their supply chains.

While there could be an argument that there is no need to respond to modern day slavery during a domestic cost of living crisis, Gray points out that economic challenges are shared around the world. “We know that when we face challenging times globally, those who are most vulnerable already are the most affected,” she says. “There are hidden costs in the global economy, and once we find out about them we have the power to act for a system that doesn’t exploit people.” 

Increased awareness of issues around cheaply produced items, including the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh a decade ago and documentaries like The True Cost, were all the more reason for New Zealand politicians to support change, and for their voters to push for it. “It’s not possible to just sit back and say ‘slavery is bad but there’s not much we can do about it,’” Gray says. “Because we can very much do something about it.”

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