Modern slavery: the dark issue we need to shed light on


In late May, I was invited by RCSA to attend a business round table discussion on Modern Slavery, held at the NZ Human Rights Commission in Auckland.

While many of us are familiar with some of the conditions that can fall under the definition of Modern Slavery (migrant exploitation, debt bondage, child slavery, human trafficking, domestic servitude, forced labour), the overarching term is one that many in New Zealand may not be familiar with.

At the end of 2018, the Australian Government passed the first specifically targeted legislation on Modern Slavery, hopefully leading to increased awareness of the issue in our region. This legislation includes an annual reporting requirement across all companies trading in Australia with a turnover of A$100M+ about their staff and sourcing procedures. While this is Australian legislation, for some of the larger New Zealand companies trading across the Tasman and that have a physical Australian operation, the legislative requirement also extends to them.

After opening remarks from New Zealand’s Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner, Saunoamali’l Karanina Sumeo , the main presentation was delivered by Amy Sinclair , a member of the Australian Government's Expert Advisory Committee on Modern Slavery.

Sinclair talked about the history and establishment of the legislation and the growing issues worldwide driving a need for this focus, adding she had supported a number of New Zealand’s largest enterprises in addressing commercial and cultural issues in this space.

It is estimated that in excess of 40 million people worldwide are direct victims of modern slavery, meaning there is likely a flow-on effect entering most supply chains at some point. Additionally, some larger businesses globally acknowledge that within their supply chain, it is not a matter of “if” there is slavery but “where”.

Consumer NZ research shows 83% of New Zealanders have specifically indicated they would cease to trade with unethical suppliers, revealing that while there is a legal, moral, ethical and social need to address slavery, there is also a clear business case for doing so.

What is not known is the scale of the problem with many global supply chains being diverse and complex, and as such, hard to ascertain where they source their staff from.

Companies are starting where they can and that is focusing on the known core areas and demographics associated with modern slavery such as specific industries, locations, and manufacturing/production processes in which incidence is more prevalent.

Key stats (from news agency Reuters): Industries most known to engage in modern slavery include commercial fishing (forced labour, debt bondage, withheld passports), hospitality and cleaning (servitude, forced labour, human trafficking, child slavery), garment and electronics manufacture, construction (forced labour, withheld wages, confiscated passports) and agriculture. Almost three-quarters of those trapped in modern slavery are female; one in four is a child and most slaves are taken from Africa, followed by Asia and then the Pacific.

North Korea has the world's highest rate of slavery, with about one in 10 people enslaved; followed by Eritrea (9.3%); Burundi (4%); Central African Republic (2.2%); Afghanistan (2.2%); Mauritania (2.1%); South Sudan (2%); Pakistan (1.7%); Cambodia (1.7%) and Iran (1.6%).

India is home to an estimated eight million slaves, followed by China (3.86 million), Pakistan (3.19 million), North Korea (2.64 million), Nigeria (1.39 million), Iran (1.29 million), Indonesia (1.22 million), Democratic Republic of the Congo (1 million), Russia (794,000) and the Philippines (784,000).

Human trafficking generates an estimated $150 billion each year in illicit profits for traffickers and slave masters.

It is estimated that there are 15,000 people in Australia currently engaged under conditions defined as modern slavery, and approximately 3,000 people in New Zealand in the same situation.

While the task ahead is mammoth it is not insurmountable. Formally recognising the issue through legislation and then building the commitment is the first step to addressing it.

For businesses supporting this, setting a process of internal policy and culture to first draw a line in the sand and set a standard, then to work backwards to identify potential instances would then follow.

Doing this and sharing insights helps to shine a light on the conditions and characteristics of instances so everyone working collaboratively can benefit from greater knowledge and capability to identify and avoid.

Recently in New Zealand there have been a number of reported and investigated cases of what falls under the umbrella of modern slavery which is hard to understand. It is encouraging that instances like this that are occurring on our shores have been uncovered, investigated and ceased.

What is clear is that communication and collaboration is key to driving change in this area.

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