Modern slavery: Time for NZ legislation

Opinion: The Centre for Research on Modern Slavery is challenging the government with a new White Paper that urges establishment of a Modern Slavery Act.

NZ law does not impose a supply chain transparency obligation on our companies concerning any forms of labour rights abuses. Photo: iStocks

Modern slavery: we may look on the very idea with horror, but most New Zealanders regularly buy goods produced overseas by forced labour, unknowingly helping sustain modern slavery practices.

Modern slavery exists in New Zealand, too, usually involving exploitation of migrants across many industries. We are lagging behind countries like the UK and Australia in establishing legislation against modern slavery which, in a trade-dependent nation, poses a potential risk for New Zealand businesses operating internationally.

New Zealand is, however, committed to eliminating modern slavery. To this end, the Centre for Research on Modern Slavery, based at the Auckland Business School, has released a White Paper, Toward a Modern Slavery Act in New Zealand - Legislative landscape and steps forward, as a challenge to the Government to take up arms against this global atrocity.

The research was co-funded by the New Zealand Law Foundation and the Michael and Suzanne Borrin Foundation.

In other countries, advances are being made that require more of private enterprises to protect human rights in their supply chains. For example, in Australia and the UK, transparency reporting legislation requires organisations to publish an annual statement outlining actions taken to prevent modern slavery in such chains.

However, this legislation currently only applies to larger organisations. They can fulfil their obligations simply by admitting they have not taken any preventative steps. This is likely to change with the next generation of legislation which will apply to organisations of all sizes.

In addition, several European countries have passed, or are considering, "due diligence" legislation which requires companies to do more to prevent human rights violations that have been identified in supply chains. This is in contrast to transparency legislation which does not require companies to take corrective action if they identify modern slavery. Due diligence legislation also recognises that what is reasonable to expect of a large organisation regarding auditing, reporting, and remediation may be far beyond the means of a small company.

This means an organisation defending itself against allegations of complicity in human rights abuses need not show that it has met or exceeded a standard set by global corporations but has done what might be reasonably expected of an enterprise of its size, industry, and dominant business model. Small- and medium-sized businesses would still need to guard rigorously against involvement in humans rights abuses, but the law recognises they can't do what would be expected from multinational corporations.

Currently, New Zealand law does not impose a supply chain transparency obligation on our companies concerning any forms of labour rights abuses. The only exception is that importers must ensure their foreign sources do not employ prison labour (Customs and Excise Act 2018/Customs Import Prohibition (Goods Produced by Prison Labour) Order 2019).

In 2005, Trade Aid presented a petition to Parliament to expand this prohibition on imports of goods made by slave labour. The Foreign Affairs and Trade Select Committee believed there would be legal difficulties with implementing a prohibition. The committee endorsed an approach that the private sector should voluntarily ensure supply chain participants respect core labour rights. This has not eventuated.

There have been other attempts to introduce laws against aspects of modern slavery in New Zealand. In 2009, former Labour MP Maryan Street introduced a member's Bill seeking to amend the Customs and Excise Act to prohibit the import of goods produced by slave labour. In 2015, MP Peeni Henare introduced a member's Bill with the same intent. Both Bills were voted down on the ground that slavery was imprecisely defined. In 2017, MP Dr Liz Craig introduced a Transparency in Supply Chains member's Bill; the Bill was withdrawn in March 2018.

It is now time for New Zealand to meet the commitment it has to eradicate modern slavery with actions that include:

- Introducing due diligence legislation that requires organisations to take direct action to remove modern slavery from their supply chains.

- Defining "modern slavery" in the New Zealand context to ensure it is fit for purpose.

- Introducing disclosure obligations that encompass human rights violations, including employment rights abuses and exploitation of migrant labour.

- Implementing a penalty regime extending to local involvement in extraterritorial rights abuses is long overdue.

Further, New Zealand should criminalise forced labour more extensively as well as implement a statutory defence of being a victim of human trafficking to individuals in breach of immigration regulations. This would ensure that the legislative framework more fully protects victims of human trafficking and modern slavery.

New Zealand enjoys a high reputation regarding its respect for human rights and the rule of law. Offences of modern slavery are of international concern. New Zealand must play its part to ensure these crimes are effectively suppressed – both in New Zealand and abroad.

Associate Professor Christina Stringer, Dr Brent Burmester, Professor Snejina Michailova are from the Centre for Research on Modern Slavery at the University of Auckland Business School and Dr Thomas Harré from LawAid International.

Their full study, Toward a Modern Slavery Act in New Zealand - Legislative landscape and steps forward, is available here.

This article reflects the opinion of the authors and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom Modern slavery: Time for NZ legislation 21 September 2021.

Media queries

Alison Sims | Media adviser
09 923 4953
Mob 021 249 0089