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Why New Zealand’s much-needed modern slavery legislation must be created in coherence with other policies

Why New Zealand’s much-needed modern slavery legislation must be created in coherence with other policies

Full article with NBR published 28 November 2021.

Significant developments in the work towards a New Zealand Modern Slavery Act this year. Last week [18 Nov], we reached another milestone when World Vision and Trade Aid presented evidence to the Petitions Committee in support of a strong and robust Modern Slavery Act for New Zealand. 

 While we wait for the Select Committee’s report and recommendations, we acknowledge that the policy process is occurring at pace. Public consultation on options for modern slavery legislation is taking place in early 2022, with MBIE’s acknowledgment that “there is a gap in New Zealand’s
measures regarding modern slavery in international supply chains”. 

 While the initial call was for the introduction of transparency obligations regarding modern slavery in supply chains, there is an increasing resounding request for a modern slavery legislation to have mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence front and centre, in line with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). This is in alignment with legislative developments in the EU, as well as the calls for reform and  improvement of the transparency models currently in place in the United Kingdom and Australia. 

 Other policy developments that intersect with modern slavery legislation include an inquiry into migrant worker exploitation, the development of a new “duty to preevent” law (which  would  require  certain third parties to take reasonable steps to prevent a breach of employment standards) and mandatory climate change disclosure law for financial institutions. Furthermore, the Government  has committed to carrying out a national plan of action on business and human  rights,  however,  there is not currently any apparent link to this development and modern slavery legislation.  

There is an urgent need for policy coherence across all initiatives that intersect with modern
slavery if we are going to have effective law and policy for New Zealand businesses that provides a level playing field and cuts to the heart of protecting people from exploitation and slavery in supply chains.

I’ve outlined the key milestones that have taken place in 2021 below: 

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March 2021: an open letter signed by nearly 100 New Zealand companies was handed to Minister Michael Wood at parliament asking the Government to commence an inquiry into a Modern Slavery Act for New Zealand businesses and public sector supply chains. The letter was signed by some of
the nation’s largest companies, including Foodstuffs, The Warehouse Group, Ice Breaker, Xero as well as many small to medium sized companies.  The letter specifically stated: "Modern slavery goes against our kiwi values.

 On the same day, the Government published the ‘Plan of Action against Forced Labour, People Trafficking and Slavery’ reaffirming New Zealand's commitment to prevent and eliminate modern slavery and made a commitment to consider a Modern Slavery Act. 

 April 2021: New Zealand joined the USA, UK and Canada to express concern about forced and compulsory labour and called on the International Labour Organisation to bring attention to and address serious and persistent labour rights deficits around the world. While this was a soft approach, it was a response nonetheless to numerous reports of forced labour of Uyghur in  Xinjiang. It is evident that New Zealand has been complicit in using products from this region.   

 World Vision NZ research showed that more than NZD 3 billion of "risky goods" associated with child labour and modern slavery are imported to New Zealand each year. It also highlighted how New Zealand businesses and consumers do not often know where their products come from, with
consumers spending more than $1700 a year on these products.  

June - July 2021: World Vision and Trade Aid presented a petition signed by over 37,500 New Zealanders requesting modern slavery legislation that requires public and private entities to report on the risks of modern slavery in their operations and supply chains.   In response, Minister Wood convened a Modern Slavery Leadership Advisory Group chaired by Rob Fyfe to "formally advise the Government on the best way of taking this issue and possible legislation forward". The Minister also made a commitment to decide on whether to move forward with legislation before the end of 2021.  

 New Zealand was downgraded to a Tier 2 ranking in the 2021 United States’ ‘Trafficking in Persons Report’ due to insufficient victim identification and protection efforts, failure to sentence trafficking offenders to time in prison, and a lack of understanding of trafficking among service providers and officials.  

 September - October 2021: World Vision and Trade Aid made submissions to the Petitions Committee calling for legislation based on the UN Guiding principles on Business and Human Rights and requiring mandatory due diligence.  MBIE and the Human Rights Commission were also invited to make submissions. The Commission “unequivocally supported” the introduction of  legislation, requesting that mandatory due diligence should cover human rights and the environment.  

 New Zealand Centre for Research on Modern Slavery released a white paper that recommended mandatory due diligence for a New Zealand Modern Slavery Act.

An inquiry into migrant exploitation was opened by the Education and Workforce Select Committee, with the closing date for submissions 3 February 2022.  

 New Zealand passed world-first climate change reporting legislation for the financial sector – around 200 New Zealand companies, known as the Climate-related Disclosures and Other Matters Disclosure Bill.

 November: World Vision presented an oral submission to the Select Committee.

 Now we wait, and we hope that 2022 will bring even more positive change, in the form of a Modern
Slavery Act, that not only signals the start of a new era for New Zealand entities and their supply chains, but also realises an overdue Act that has developed in alignment with other complementary policy developments currently taking place.

Rebekah Armstrong is the Head of Advocacy and Justice at World Vision New Zealand and the Director of Business and Human Rights Consultants.