Why New Zealand needs a modern slavery act

modern slavery

Walk into St Lukes mall in Auckland and you’ll find Body Haven massage on the second floor. Last year, the company was found guilty of paying a masseuse the equivalent of 86¢ an hour.

It was ordered to repay the worker $8000 and put on a “stand-down” list preventing it from hiring migrant labour for six months.

The sad truth is that it’s not an isolated instance of labour exploitation.

One of the most notorious cases hit headlines last year when Hastings-based Joseph Matamata was found guilty of 10 charges of people trafficking and 13 charges of dealing in slaves between 1994 and 2019.

The victims were forced to work on orchards and do other jobs but never paid for their labour.

The court found Matamata enslaved people through violence and intimidation. He kept their passports and restricted their movements.

It’s among four trafficking prosecutions taken since 2009, involving a total of 51 victims.

“These numbers likely only reflect the tip of the iceberg,” according to Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety Michael Wood.

In March, the minister released a five-year plan to combat modern slavery – the term coined to describe the rise of forced labour in today’s economy.

The plan comes with a $50 million budget and a pledge to look at new laws. Harsher penalties for offenders are also in the pipeline. But there’s pressure on the government to pick up the pace and introduce a Modern Slavery Act, following moves in other countries.

Global slave trade

More than 40 million people are estimated to be trapped in slavery, according to the Global Slavery Index 2018. Nearly two-thirds are in the Asia-Pacific region.

Mounting evidence of forced labour has led to renewed calls for companies to shoulder more responsibility for their supply chains and the people making their products.

In 2015, the UK introduced a Modern Slavery Act. It requires companies earning more than £36 million ($NZ70m) a year to report annually on the steps taken to ensure their products aren’t produced by slave labour.

Three years later, Australia passed its own Modern Slavery Act. The law means companies earning more than $A100 million ($NZ107m) must publish “modern slavery statements” setting out what they’re doing to address forced labour risks.

This law also applies to New Zealand companies that trade in Australia. To date, 23 New Zealand businesses – including Contact Energy and New Zealand Post – have published modern slavery statements.

Chapman Tripp partner Nicola Swan believes several hundred New Zealand businesses could be affected either being required to produce their own statements or to report on slave labour risks to Australian parent companies. Continue reading

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