As Cabinet ministers mull which policy plans they will ‘pare back’ over the summer break, New Zealanders involved in tackling modern slavery say legislation should not be delayed

Charities and academics have warned the Government against delaying plans to tackle modern slavery, following a months-long silence on the next steps in the process.

In April, Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood announced a proposal for a new law to address worker exploitation and forced labour at home and abroad, after more than 37,000 Kiwis signed a petition calling for action.

All private and public sector organisations would have to take “reasonable and proportionate action” to address modern slavery, with companies with more than $20 million in annual revenue required to disclose what steps they were taking, and those with more than $50m needing to undertake due diligence to “prevent, mitigate and remedy” the practice.

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However, there has been no sign of final legislation since public submissions closed in June, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has instructed her Cabinet ministers to review all their outstanding plans in an effort to “pare back” the Government’s reform work.

The limited amount of parliamentary time before the next election means it could also be difficult to pass any modern slavery bill into law before the House rises, leaving its fate at the whim of the next government.

A summary of the submissions produced by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment noted strong support for the proposed legislation’s objectives, but said many submitters were concerned about the lack of clarity regarding terms such as “modern slavery” and “reasonable and proportionate”.

Most submitters believed an independent oversight mechanism should be set up as part of any law, while others said there needed to be “careful consideration of the scope and breadth of obligations and how they apply to different entities and environments”.

World Vision NZ chief executive Grant Bayldon told Newsroom the Government needed to move ahead with legislation as quickly as possible, given the urgency of the issue.

“​​This is something that has been through public consultation with overwhelming support, it’s had large support through a petition on it, there’s been a lot of very positive business engagement, and so now’s the time while that momentum is there – the need could hardly be greater.”

“Good businesses realise that the days will soon be gone where it’s ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ about the conditions of the people who make the products that we bring into the country that we use in our homes and in our workplaces.”
– Grant Bayldon, World Vision NZ

In the two years since the Government started the process of developing legislation, Bayldon said the number of people facing modern slavery conditions around the world had risen by 25 percent, up to 50 million.

The Australian government was already working on the second iteration of its own modern slavery legislation through a review of the current act, while the European Union had announced legislation in line with New Zealand’s own plans.

Bayldon said he was unsure why there had not been swifter progress with the Government’s work here, but he believed there was “an inevitability” about legislation in the area.

“Good businesses realise that the days will soon be gone where it’s ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ about the conditions of the people who make the products that we bring into the country that we use in our homes and in our workplaces.”

Any delay in moving ahead with a modern slavery law could harm not just New Zealand’s international reputation, but the lives of those trapped in such arrangements.

Dr Brent Burmester, a researcher at the University of Auckland’s Centre for Research on Modern Slavery, told Newsroom he was confident the Government remained committed to passing legislation before the end of the term.

‘Tricky territory’

“There are also a number of competing interests pulling in different directions, and it’s tricky territory to navigate,” Burmester said, adding that the Government’s ambitious approach had also slowed down progress.

However, he was concerned about the impact of any delay in getting a law passed, as New Zealand needed to “set a high bar” and it was possible a National/ACT government could take a less rigorous approach.

Conservative governments in Australia and the United Kingdom had moved ahead with laws that focused on only a minority of businesses and seemed mainly about managing reputational risk rather than taking meaningful action.

“I don’t think that an act passed under the current administration would be walked back by a different government, but the final form of legislation might be circumscribed if the act is not finished in the current term and it gets taken to the finish line by a new coalition government,” Burmester said.

In a statement, Wood told Newsroom the legislation was still being amended in response to feedback from the consultation process, with the Government expecting to introduce a bill before the end of the current term.

“Modern slavery and worker exploitation are serious forms of exploitation seen internationally and within New Zealand. Addressing these practices requires a whole-of-society response, undertaken through strong partnerships across government agencies and with civil society, businesses, unions, academia and international partners,” Wood said.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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