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Calls for a Modern Slavery Act in Aotearoa New Zealand

Modern slavery is a worldwide problem which demands adequate legislative action to inform and combat its manifestations, including in Aotearoa, New Zealand.

Modern slavery is a human rights violation that occurs in every region of the world. In its 2017 ‘Global Estimates of Modern Slavery’ report, the International Labour Office states that 40.3 million people have been identified as victims of modern slavery. To put this into perspective, of this 40.3 million, 24.9 million people were in forced labour situations and 15.4 million were living in forced marriages to which they had not consented.[1] As a result, women and girls are disproportionately affected by modern slavery; as they account for 71% of the overall total, with 99% of the victims of forced labour involved in the commercial sex industry, and 84% in forced marriages.[2]

These statistics paint a harrowing picture of the ongoing suffering and abuse endured by so many in 2021 – in a world where we may have deluded ourselves into thinking that slavery had been relegated to history. In attempts to combat this situation, legislative action has increased worldwide, seeking to grapple with the reality and effects of modern slavery- including in countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, and United States. New Zealand, however, has sought to take a different approach with our government (in December 2020) introducing its ‘Combatting Modern Slavery’: Plan of Action against Forced Labour, People Trafficking and Slavery,’ which sets out a five-year governmental approach to combatting such exploitative crimes.[3]

Throughout this blog post I will therefore explore what modern slavery involves and recent events related to it; I will look at the current New Zealand legislative framework and case law, and how we are lagging in relation to what other countries are doing to combat modern slavery. I will also cover the value of introducing modern slavery legislation and what we can, as individuals, can do to help combat this global human rights problem.

What is modern slavery?

Modern slavery is an umbrella-term used to describe exploitative practices. The use of “modern” is used to distinguish between present-day slavery and historical slavery-like practices.[4] The exploitative practices that comprise modern slavery include forced labour, human trafficking, forced marriage, debt bondage and other slavery-like practices.[5] Often such situations involve coercion, deception, or threatening victims to deprive them of human rights and freedoms.

Modern slavery occurs in the operation of businesses and their supply chains for the provision of goods and services worldwide. The fishing, textile, construction, mineral and agricultural industries are recognised as key culprits in terms of modern slavery, particularly in relation to forced labour.[6] Modern slavery is also driven by factors like poor political and legal governance, lack of application of the rule of law and inadequate labour law protections; socio-economic drivers like poverty and lack of access to necessities are also significant issues.

Aotearoa New Zealand’s current legal framework and case law

Current legislation governing modern slavery includes the Crimes Act 1961 and the Immigration Act 2009. Under the Crimes Act, s 98 addresses dealing in slaves and s 98AA specifically covers dealing in people under 18 for sexual exploitation, removal of body parts, and engagement in forced labour – and both carry a maximum sentence of up to 14 years. Further, s 98D of the Act addresses trafficking in persons which carries a maximum prison sentence of up to 20 years, and a fine of up to $500,000 and s 207A defines a coerced marriage or civil union as an offence warranting a maximum sentence of up to 5 years. The Immigration Act 2009 s 351 seeks to add another layer of protection by recognising as an offence, the exploitation of unlawful employees and/or temporary workers, with the potential to impose a maximum prison sentence of up to 7 years, and a fine up to $100,000.

While modern slavery is often thought of as something that happens overseas, instances have been identified and prosecuted here in New Zealand. For example, in 2020, in the High Court decision in R v Matamata,[7] New Zealand saw its first criminal conviction in both human trafficking and slavery. The case involved victims being lured from Samoa to New Zealand to work in horticulture, with the promise of better wages which simply did not eventuate. The employer was convicted of 13 slavery charges and 10 trafficking in person charges, sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment in July 2020, and ordered to pay $183,000 in reparations to the victims.[8] The convictions and sentence are currently under appeal, due to be heard in 2021. This is not an isolated incident - the Walk Free Foundation estimates that one in 150 people are living in modern slavery in New Zealand, Australia, and the Pacific region[9] and World Vision estimates that $3 billion in products linked to modern slavery find their way onto New Zealand shelves each year – hence it is a significant problem for us as a country.[10]

What has happened recently in Aotearoa New Zealand regarding modern slavery?

In December 2020, Workplace Relations and Safety Minister, Michael Wood released New Zealand’s ‘Plan of Action’ regarding modern slavery; it sets out 28 government actions through to 2025[11] - they fall within three internationally recognised pillars: prevention, protection, and enforcement. Action 16 of the Plan covers the potential for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to consider legislation which would require businesses to report publicly on transparency in supply chains, to help eliminate practices of modern slavery.[12] The status of this action is currently identified as “planned” in the overall Plan of Action, which can be read in full here.

Following the Plan’s introduction, on 16 March 2021, an open letter was signed by 85 New Zealand businesses and in presenting it to the New Zealand government, they called for a government-led inquiry into modern slavery legislation on behalf of New Zealand business and public sector supply chains. Business voices reflected in this letter included some of Aotearoa’s most eminent companies, like ascolour, CeresOrganics, The Warehouse and Fix and Fogg – who stated: “Modern slavery goes against our Kiwi values. New Zealand’s identity as a nation is built on kindness, fairness, equality, and sustainability. As New Zealand continues to trade on these credentials, showing leadership on addressing modern slavery through ensuring its companies and public sector are meeting global labour rights standards, becomes more important.” What has happened as a result? Although the Labour government has previously commented on the issue of modern slavery, having also pledged - prior to the last election - to investigate New Zealand legislation to eliminate exploitation in supply chains, there has yet to be a response to the open letter.

What are overseas jurisdictions doing?

There has been an increasing demand for more sustainable supply chains of goods and services from businesses, consumers, and regulators. This is reflected in supply chain reporting requirements introduced in California in 2012, which inspired the United Kingdom to create their own legislation in 2015. This took the form of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 which seeks to combat modern slavery and consolidated previous offences relating to trafficking and slavery. Australia followed suit, implementing a similar Modern Slavery Act in 2018. Other jurisdictions such as Canada and the EU have also recognised the need for further action and announced their desire to introduce similar regimes.

The UK Act currently requires businesses with a consolidated global turnover of £36 million per annum (or more), which supply goods or services to prepare a slavery and human trafficking statement for each financial year.[13] This requirement has more recently though, been criticised for its lack of teeth in terms of enforcement mechanisms, so in 2020, the UK government announced its intention to introduce similar reporting requirements to Australia which are much stronger, requiring companies with turnovers of A$100 million (NZ $198) or more to report on the risks of forced labour in their operations and supply chains, and what they are doing to both address and assess modern slavery risks.[14] Aotearoa however, has no similar legislation which leaves us lagging behind other comparable countries, who are actively working to address the issue of modern slavery.

Should Aotearoa New Zealand introduce a Modern Slavery Act?

Aotearoa New Zealand as mentioned above, currently lags in comparison to other countries’ legislative responses to modern slavery. This situation is caused by the lack of a targeted legislative framework that holds businesses accountable and ensures transparency in supply chains. Due to this and despite the call for action by some leading businesses, there are many other New Zealand businesses which seem unaware – or even worse – may be turning a blind eye to the potential for modern slavery to be occurring within their operations, including supply chains. Although, as previously noted, the government’s December 2020 Plan of Action, states that legislation will be considered, there has yet to be any decision made, with Minister Michael Wood noting that this may happen by the end of this year.[15]

Furthermore, in the wake of recent and well-publicised human rights abuses by China, in Xinjiang against the region’s Muslim minority Uyghur population, there has been an increasing demand for action to combat such exploitation. These latest abuses have driven Britain, the US and Australia to draft specific legislation preventing the importation of goods from Xinjiang and other Chinese regions believed to exploit forced labour in the production of cheap export commodities.[16] New Zealand, however, has neither modern slavery legislation nor does it impose sanctions on goods arriving from areas suspected of human rights abuses. Hence, while the Plan of Action offers a step forward for Aotearoa, real and decisive action is needed, including the development and implementation of legislation that holds businesses accountable and achieves real transparency in terms of how and where our goods and services originate to ensure they are not tainted by modern slavery.

What can we as individuals do about modern slavery?

We all have a role to play in reducing and ending the presence of modern slavery - both in New Zealand and internationally. We can do this through being conscious clothing consumers, purchasing items that are ethically and sustainably designed and manufactured. We must educate ourselves on the indicators of modern slavery – learn to identify potential victims, unethical companies and supply chains which are commercially benefitting from modern slavery. We must question ourselves (and others) when purchasing goods and services – for instance, what are these clothes made from? Are they sustainable? Who made the clothes or goods? What is the company’s reputation? Are they known for fairness and integrity – including to staff and suppliers? Are they known for their sustainability? How do I feel when I purchase these items? Am I helping or hindering modern slavery through this purchase?

To help answer such questions, I have carefully curated a list of resources to inform you further about modern slavery and how you can help to combat it; it includes a list of some New Zealand sustainable clothing brands, social media platforms and the annual TearFund ‘Ethical Fashion Guide in Aotearoa’ which can help you make informed, sustainable choices and grow your awareness of potential modern slavery. I have also provided access to numerous websites and documentaries which offer additional insights into specific aspects of modern slavery, including forced labour and marriage, and human and sex trafficking.

Now more than ever, action and change is needed in Aotearoa, New Zealand if we are to end modern slavery, both here and internationally. This begins with the choices we make as individuals, making a genuine commitment to educate ourselves about modern slavery, and to consciously consider and consume goods and services in ways that seek to end the exploitation of others, whether in Aotearoa New Zealand or worldwide. We all have the ability to make better decisions – and it is our individual and collective responsibility to do so as we work to end the grave human rights violation of modern slavery.

Additional resources:

Sustainable clothing brands:

o Maggie Marilyn

o Kowtow

o Bare Bones

o Arc & Bow

o Masami Clothing

o Ovna Ovich

o Untouched World

o Icebreaker

o ascolour

o Macpac

o Kathmandu

o Kate Sylvester

o Ruby

Sustainable shoe brands:

o Allbirds

o Veja

o Soul Shoes

o Etiko

o Oliberte

Informative Instagram accounts:

o @fash_rev

o @fash_rev_newzealand

o @unmaterialgirl

o @ethicallykate

o @the_anti_slavery_collective

o @dressember

o @ourrescue

o @fashionforgood

o @cleanclothescampaign

o @whycantiuk


o The True Cost

o The Machinists

o Luxury: Behind the mirror of high end fashion

o River Blue

o Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj: The Ugly Truth of Fast Fashion

o Knots: A forced Marriage Story

o Brides and Brothels: The Rohingya Trade

o Ghost Fleet

o Sex Trafficking in America

o Journey to Freedom

2020 Fashion Guide about how ethical clothing brands are in NZ:



Olivia Mendonça


[1] International Labour Organisation and Walk Free Foundation “Global Estimates of Modern Slavery: Forced Labour and Forced Marriage” (2017) ILO. <>. [2] International Labour Organisation and Walk Free Foundation, <>. [3] New Zealand Government, “Combatting Modern Forms of Slavery Plan of Action against Forced Labour, People Trafficking and Slavery 2020-25 (December 2020) <>. [4] International Labour Organisation and Walk Free Foundation, <>. [5] International Labour Organisation and Walk Free Foundation, <>. [6] End Slavery Now, “Forced Labor” (2021) End Slavery Now <>. [7] R v Matamata [2020] NZHC 1829. [8] R v Matamata at [85]. [9] Walk Free Organisation, “Eradicating Modern Slavery – An assessment of Commonwealth governments’ progress on achieving SDG Target 8.7” (2020) <>. [10] Daniel Dunkley “Modern Slavery: Government slow to act on needed legislation” (May 13 2021) Stuff <>. [11] MinterEllisonRuddWatts “Addressing modern slavery: What New Zealand businsses should know” (March 24 2021) <>. [12] “Combatting Modern Forms of Slavery Plan of Action against Forced Labour, People Trafficking and Slavery 2020-25 (December 2020) <>. [13] [14] Daniel Dunkley “Modern Slavery: Government slow to act on needed legislation” (May 13 2021) Stuff <>. [15] Daniel Dunkley “Modern Slavery: Government slow to act on needed legislation” (May 13 2021) Stuff <>. [16] Daniel Dunkley, <>.

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