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Rebekah Armstrong was until recently advisory and research manager at the NZ Human Rights Commission and chair of the Human Trafficking Research Coalition. Now she's setting up a company to help New Zealand businesses check for forced labour, child labour, or worker exploitation in their supply chains.
AUSTRALIA'S MODERN SLAVERY ACT
The catalyst for Armstrong's new venture is Australia's Modern Slavery Act, which came into force in January this year. The act forces large companies working in Australia to report on any risks of modern-day slavery in their supply chain, and tell regulators (and customers) what actions have been taken to address that risk.
Some New Zealand companies selling in Australia will be caught by the new legislation, though the first disclosure reports aren't due until December 31 next year.
Armstrong says exploitation is a huge problem in food production internationally and New Zealanders are certainly buying unethically-sourced food. The US Dept of Labour puts together an annual list of goods produced by child or forced labour, and she's seen several products from that list on supermarket shelves here.
They include coconut water from the Philippines, melons from South America, beans from Turkey, rice from India, Vietnam or the Philippines, and fish from Southeast Asia. Just last week, the BBC released an investigation into child labour on hazelnut farms in Turkey. The biggest hazelnut buyer is Ferrero, the company that makes Nutella and those yummy crunchy chocolates.
Asia-Pacific countries are the normal culprit when it comes to modern slavery, Armstrong says. So it's a shock when the product is something as common as tomatoes, and they are grown in a western country most people would expect was abiding by strict EU labour laws.
Armstrong says supermarkets around the world can be cut-throat when it comes to getting ever-cheaper prices from their suppliers. But when they buy largely on price, that raises questions about whether companies are cutting corners - or blatantly flouting the law - when it comes to labour practices or environmental management.
"When you see very cheap products, you have to ask how are suppliers getting that cost down so much? I have particular questions around supermarkets' own brands. Tinned tomatoes are often sold for 99 cents or less. Is it the workers' pay and conditions making that possible?"
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