Modern Slavery – Supply chains increasingly under the spotlight

May, 2021

By: Kent Duffy

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Supply chains are an area of business that are subject to greater consumer scrutiny and more onerous legal obligations in terms of ‘modern slavery’ legislation.

The term ‘modern slavery’ refers to situations where people who are victims of slavery are subject to threats, coercion, exploitation and force for example in order to deprive them of their freedom, which is often hidden in supply chains.

The US, UK and Australia have dedicated modern slavery laws, which essentially require businesses to report on the potential risks of forced labour in their supply chains and what they are doing to address the issue.

While New Zealand does not currently have any legislation in place to address the issue of modern slavery in a supply chain context, the Government has recently released New Zealand’s ‘Plan of Action against Forced Labour, People Trafficking and Slavery’. In short, this approach provides an all-of-government plan of action, including ‘considering introducing legislation’, i.e. a Modern Slavery Act, to assist in combatting modern slavery in Aotearoa and associated supply chain networks (https://www.mbie.govt.nz/business-and-employment/employment-and-skills/plan-of-action-against-forced-labour-people-trafficking-and-slavery/).

New Zealand is not immune to practices of forced labour, people trafficking and slavery. The recent case of R v Matamata [2020] NZHC 1829 saw New Zealand’s first criminal conviction for human trafficking and slavery against Joseph Auga Matamata – a former Samoan Chief who enticed people from Samoa to New Zealand with the promise of better wages and meaningful work in horticulture but were instead enslaved.

In a recent open letter to Government, which has been signed by a number of large New Zealand businesses, they called on the Government to introduce legislation to help combat modern slavery, which further illustrates how these issues are gathering a lot groundswell for change. Of further relevance is the fact that the Workplace Relations and Safety Minister, Michael Wood, has also expressed the view that the Government remains ‘committed to exploring modern slavery legislation’ and has indicated that businesses should expect a decision on whether to proceed with legislation by the end of this year.

Employment New Zealand have also added new information on their website about ethical and sustainable work practices (https://www.employment.govt.nz/workplace-policies/ethical-sustainable-work-practices/ ).

In summary, this information provides useful guidelines to businesses about matters relevant to this area, which have largely been driven by increasing demands from stakeholders, including customers, employees, investors and consumers for businesses to show ethical and sustainable work practices in relation to how workers are treated within their organisation and supply chains.

Businesses need to start planning, preparing, and implementing measures to respond to these issues by looking closely at their organisation and conducting careful due diligence. Even if legislation is not passed, it is likely that businesses will face growing pressure from key stakeholders about these issues and can be expected to explain what they are doing to address them within their own organisations and supply chains.

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