Major UK supermarket chains have threatened to pull New Zealand products from their shelves following high-profile cases of migrant worker exploitation.

As consumers become more discerning, suppliers, manufacturers and retailers are facing added pressure to make sure ethical standards are met at every step in the supply chain.

As well as being abhorrent examples of treatment by employers, cases of migrant worker exploitation in New Zealand export industries have the potential to do reputational damage to those industries and the country as a trading nation.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said there had been some occasions where New Zealand had “dodged a few bullets” following stories about worker exploitation.

These near misses showed the real risk – another reason for the Government to continue on its path to stamping out worker exploitation, he said.

The coalition Government has spoken extensively about stamping out migrant exploitation, and is in the process of putting in place new policy settings and carrying out research in an effort to better understand the extent of the issue.

The Labour-NZ First coalition agreement promised to “take serious action on migrant exploitation, particularly of international students”.

While that work was underway, along with beefing up industry standards and independently-audited accreditation schemes, some employers continued to slip through the cracks.

Lees-Galloway said a few bad employers did damage to wider industries and New Zealand as a trading nation.

The supply chain had become more of an area of focus, and retailers in some of New Zealand’s key markets were looking a lot more closely at labour standards.

“If you get a reputation that migrant workers are exploited, it does damage to your ability to sell products into those markets.”

So far, New Zealand had been able to write off these incidents as near misses, but some believed it was a matter of “when, not if” the supermarkets made good on their threat.

“We’ve dodged a few bullets so far.”

Risk of overstating exploitation

National Party immigration spokesman Michael Woodhouse said Lees-Galloway was right to be concerned about instances of worker exploitation, but cautioned the minister against highlighting a couple of bad, high-profile incidents, and creating a trend from them.

Essentially, there was a risk of overstating the problem, Woodhouse said.

No one should get a free pass if they were non-compliant or exploitative, but the Government needed to be careful not to talk up the level of exploitation that occurred in New Zealand.

The risk to New Zealand’s reputation was real, he said.

In late 2017 – when Woodhouse was immigration minister – he called in some industry groups for a ‘please explain’ meeting, but came away reassured the groups were aware of the issue and had quality assurance processes and accreditation schemes in place to stop this type of practice.

‘When, not if’

Horticulture New Zealand chief executive Mike Chapman said when cases of worker exploitation hit the news, industry went into damage control.

Those worried about their reputation and their business worked hard to communicate with retailers, like the European supermarkets, and distance themselves from whatever individual was flouting the rules.

“All the major exporters and growers are all very concerned about making sure they don’t have any of this happening.”

Chapman said the horticulture industry used stringent, independently-audited accreditation schemes, including the global standard GlobalGAP, and the New Zealand version NZGap.

Those wanting to export to foreign markets needed to have the GlobalGAP accreditation, which meant they were compliant with New Zealand law as well as additional standards, including social responsibility standards.

Those wanting to supply New Zealand supermarkets Countdown or Foodstuffs needed to at least meet the NZGap standards, which would soon also include social standards.

Industry bodies also ran training workshops on compliance and standards, and kept an eye on smaller growers and sub-contractors, Chapman said.

And growers who employed Pacific Island workers through the RSE scheme had to meet stringent tests to become an accredited employer.

But these schemes didn’t stop a few people from slipping through the cracks.

“You can be looking after your own patch but if the guy down the road isn’t playing the game, that’s another issue.”

And a few bad apples could have a devastating effect on the wider industry, he said, adding that news travelled fast and there was a real risk of retailers pulling New Zealand products from the shelves.

“I don’t think it’s if, it’s when.”

It was not hard for things to be blown out of proportion, which could lead to distrust in the supply chain.

“All the major exporters and growers are all very concerned about making sure they don’t have any of this happening.”

Chapman said he expected the Government’s current work on migrant worker exploitation, and proposed changes to the temporary work visa scheme would help tackle the issue.

Communication is key

Head of New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc (NZKGI) Nikki Johnson said the industry had to take extreme care in managing relationships with their customers – suppliers and supermarkets.

Any time a story about exploitation went in the media, it was picked up overseas, she said.

Workers’ rights and treatment were important no matter the customer.

However, reputational risk was something the industry needed to be aware of, with 98 percent of New Zealand fruit being exported overseas.

Zespri had extra social responsibility standards to keep in line with UK’s Modern Slavery Act. And all growers and employers, including labour hire companies, or sub-contractors, had to be accredited under the GlobalGAP (or GRASP) scheme.

The industry as a whole tried to stick to standards but there would always be some who slipped through the cracks, Johnson said.

In those cases, industry representatives communicated clearly and managed the relationship with their customers. They tried to give their customers a heads up before the story broke in the media, so the overseas supermarkets knew the news was coming – and the context.

In order for a product to be pulled from the shelf, or even the threat of that happening, there would have to be a serious breakdown in the supply chain, she said.

Leave a comment