Why does New Zealand need a Modern Slavery Act?

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Morgan Theakston
/ Categories: Modern Slavery

A Modern Slavery Act will help end forced labour and ensure that slave-made goods have no place in New Zealand. It will send a message to the world that we won’t stand for this injustice anymore and we demand action.

Over 100 New Zealand businesses and 37,000 Kiwis have called on the New Zealand Government to introduce a Modern Slavery Act and our voices have been heard. the government has responded and put forth legislation for public consideration.


Why a Modern Slavery Act?

In 2019, New Zealand imported $3.1 billion of products at risk of being made with modern slavery – including clothing, footwear, toys, electronics, bananas, coffee, tobacco and furniture. In the Asia and Pacific region, four out of every 1,000 people are victims of forced labour.

With no requirements for companies to have transparent and traceable supply chains, it is extremely difficult for Kiwis to avoid buying risky goods. Businesses that make the effort to prevent slavery in their supply chains face stiff competition from businesses that do not take these steps.

A Modern Slavery Act will mean companies are required to understand and address these risks and take actions to protect vulnerable people in their supply chains. It will also mean they have to publicly report on their progress.

With robust modern slavery legislation, people will have more assurance that the products they are purchasing are slavery-free.


Modern slavery can take the form of forced labour often for extremely long hours for little or no pay.


You may be wondering if modern slavery happens in New Zealand supply chains or just overseas. Will a Modern Slavery Act be a burden on businesses? Can legislation truly create change? Let's unpack these.


Does modern slavery happen in New Zealand supply chains or just overseas?

Both. Let's quickly revisit a moment in 2016. 

New Zealand resident Faroz Ali, was the first person in New Zealand to be sentenced for human trafficking when he was jailed for nine-and-a-half years in December 2016. He lured 15 Fijians to New Zealand with the promise of well-paid work, but instead, he forced them to toil long hours for little or no pay and made them sleep on a bare basement floor. Any resistance or requests for payment were met with threats. While this was the first prosecuted case of forced labour in New Zealand, it is considered "the tip of the iceberg". 

Cases of labour exploitation in New Zealand are increasing. This is mostly due to New Zealand's temporary visa schemes, which leave migrant labourers and international students particularly vulnerable to exploitation. The 2020 Trafficking In Persons report calls New Zealand a destination country for forced labour. It says, “Traffickers exploit foreign men and women in New Zealand’s agricultural, dairy, construction, viticulture, food service, technology, hospitality, and domestic service sectors”. The report also notes that Kiwis' “low levels of understanding of the crime across New Zealand," contributes to “a lack of sufficient efforts to increase public awareness of trafficking”.  

A report by New Zealand's Human Trafficking Research Coalition found cases of labour trafficking in our construction sector, particularly since the Christchurch earthquake rebuild began. Fifty per cent of workers brought in to rebuild the city were migrants. It also reported exploitation in the dairy industry, highlighting a case where Fijian workers in the Waikato received no pay and were forced to forage for maize so they wouldn't starve.   Since 2016, there has been a rise in modern slavery prosecutions. Last year, the government prosecuted Joseph Auga Matamata for enslaving 13 Samoan workers in New Zealand’s agricultural sector. He had been exploiting workers for 25 years. Modern Slavery happens right here on New Zealand soil. We simply cannot ignore it. 


Will a Modern Slavery Act be more red-tape and a financial burden on Kiwi businesses?

The open letter signed by more than 100 New Zealand businesses in support of the act shows otherwise. Around the world, businesses are backing supply chain legislation and encouraging governments to take action. With consumer demand for ethical and slavery-free products increasing, businesses are realising that tackling modern slavery gives them a competitive advantage, and those who compete on a sub-standard ethical level will be disadvantaged. Companies that comply with a Modern Slavery Act will reap the benefits, such as improved supplier management processes and tools, and better investor and customer relations. They'll also be leaders in an increasingly ethically conscious market. 

Tearfund's research shows that many major New Zealand businesses are already working on supply chain transparency, and some have even published modern slavery statements.  Others want to prioritise ethical sourcing but don't know where to start. Many New Zealand exporters are aware that as more countries enforce supply chain legislation, they'll be required to meet the same ethical standards. 

So, many Kiwi businesses support the legislation because it will level the playing field so that everyone is held to the same standards. It will also provide helpful resources and guidance for businesses to effectively implement changes. In terms of financial impacts, it's important to note that, though many small businesses are pursuing supply chain transparency, Modern Slavery Acts around the world have large revenue thresholds and are aimed at holding big businesses to account. 

Globally, consumers are demanding a change in the way businesses and governments act. Australia, Europe and The United Kingdom are drafting or strengthening their Modern Slavery Acts, while the EU is proposing mandatory supply chain investigations. The bar of business ethics is being raised, and we need to get on board before we’re left behind. 


Companies that comply with a Modern Slavery Act will reap the benefits, such as improved supplier management processes and tools, and better investor and customer relations.


Can one law actually create change?

When it comes to transparency, Australia's Modern Slavery Act is the reason more than 3,000 companies are required to report annually on the risks of modern slavery in their operations and supply chains, as well as the actions they are taking to address those risks. This information is published on the Australian Government's website, and the government has the power to identify non-compliant companies. Transparency is the first step to accountability. This reporting allows consumers to place public pressure on companies to implement effective change over time. 

In 2020, legislation allowed the US to ban palm oil and latex glove imports after producers were found to have forced labour in their supply chains. The glove supplier, Top Glove, was the top exporter of gloves globally during the Covid-19 pandemic and one of the major suppliers of gloves in New Zealand. The legislation increases transparency and allows governments to take action.  


This problem is hard to solve, and it won't be easy, but we need a Modern Slavery Act to force companies to disclose their decision making.


Though we are a small island in the Pacific, the world is watching what we do. Kiwis already have a reputation for being ethical and sustainable—of being a progressive nation of people that care for each other and our communities. We have the ability to not just reach the standard other countries are setting, but to be a world leader in ethical business.    


Kiwis must come together to make it loud and clear that we won’t stand for the mistreatment of our brothers and sisters. We demand products that uphold the fair treatment of all people, pay a living wage, and do not perpetuate injustice.


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Morgan Theakston

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