Almost three quarters of all baby clothes imported last year were linked to forced labour, according to new research from World Vision.
The not-for-profit organisation found 99% of baby items imported in 2022, worth more than $51 million, was at high risk of being made under child or forced labour during manufacturing in offshore markets.
But that statistic is just the tip of the iceberg, with research showing the country imported $7.9 billion worth of goods linked to modern slavery last year – and each household spends on average about $77 a week on goods linked to child and forced labour.
Those are statistics that Rebekah Armstrong says hit too close to home for comfort.
“It’s quite a shocking number. It’s the goods that we are using every single day that are risky, and I don’t think a lot of companies or consumers actually understand so many products are linked to these conditions,” says Armstrong, head of advocacy and justice at World Vision.
The organisation says the goods most associated with modern slavery are electronics, clothing, shoes, toys, and foods including bananas, fish, coffee and palm oil – an ingredient hidden in beauty products and a wide range of the foods, including chocolate and other snacks, we consume every day.
China, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia are among the worst offending countries manufacturing goods under child labour and forced labour in supply chains.
World Vision says 10% of the country’s imports are likely to have been harvested, mined, or produced using modern slavery.
It estimates that there are 50 million children, women and men trapped in modern slavery, making many of the products that fill our supermarkets, workplaces and homes.
One in four people in modern slavery is a child.
The compounding impacts of Covid-19, geopolitical conflicts and climate change have left the millions of people working in our supply chains, and their families, more vulnerable to exploitation.
And, the rapid growth of the clean energy industry to tackle climate change has inadvertently exacerbated exploitation, with minerals now heavily mined by children and others trapped in slavery.
“We are now really lagging compared to the rest of the world as we don’t have any legislation that asks a company to examine their supply chain and understand where the risks of modern slavery are. The UK, Australia, so many countries have this now, but we don’t have anything.
“There are a handful of companies in New Zealand that might have an understanding of their supply chain, and they might be operating in Europe or a country that demands them to outline where those risks are, but the majority of companies don’t.”
Electronics are the highest good imported linked to child and forced labour. “There are a lot of companies in New Zealand that use these products. Resistors and a range of electrical components, and it is important they understand when they are dealing with a risky product they need to examine their supply chain because there are risks even beyond that product.”
Lithium batteries importes from China were noted in the report as having a very strong risk of containing cobalt mined by children in East Africa. Cobalt ore is needed to produce copper and batteries that power smartphones, laptops, electric cars, ebikes and other electronics.
Garments and textiles, palm oil and footwear industries, along with furniture, were also top of the list of high risk goods often found to be subject to modern slavery practices.
About 70% of the $518m worth of children’s toys imported in 2022 came from China, where child labour and forced labour are reported in the toy making industry.
World Vision says about $365m worth of those toys imported last year could have been made under these practices, and more than 90% of all toy cameras, construction sets, doll carriages, scooters and portable electronic education devices risky goods.
“The irony is crazy … It is a crazy conundrum to imagine that the toy our children are enjoying or the clothes that our children are wearing potentially was made by a child in a factory.”
Armstrong says “any reputable” business needs to understand their supply chain and where risky product comes from. “It is becoming a reputational issue now. It is in most of our trade agreements, and it is becoming the norm that you have to understand these risks when you’re trading with other countries.
“New Zealand companies, especially bigger ones that are trading internationally, are starting to have to do this work just because they have to keep up with the global stage.”
Modern slavery legislation
World Vision is calling on the new government, once formed, to enact modern slavery legislation in its first 100 days in office, and to improve on Labour’s current proposed law to include not only disclosure requirements, but due diligence requirements, that are commonplace in other OECD countries.
This would means businesses would have to not only identify and report on cases of modern slavery, but take action to end it as well.
In July, the Labour government announced it would draft a modern slavery disclosure law requiring companies to publicly disclose the risks of modern slavery within their supply chains. While the step was said to be a good first step, organisations like World Vision said it did not go far enough to stamp out exploitation.
On Wednesday, a modern slavery event was held in Auckland, with over 100 business leaders attending to discuss how ready organisations were for modern slavery legislation.
Sustainable Business Network chairperson, and member of the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment’s Modern Slavery Leadership Advisory Group, Gareth Marriott, says New Zealand businesses are in favour of modern slavery legislation.
He says the figures in World Vision’s report are concerning and show why action to better understand supply chains needed to be taken.
“This is a global issue. In a lot cases, New Zealand is better than a lot of the rest of the world, but we cannot turn a blind eye.
“There is definitely a need for modern slavery legislation and businesses don’t have any fear of it,” says Marriott. “It is also about protecting our trade.
“It also creates a level playing field for business. We all want to play on an equal playing ground. What does that look like? That means everybody will be treated, and for the workers, around the values of New Zealand. It is about giving us all an equal playing field.”
Armstrong would like to see the banning of imports linked to child and forced labour as part of legislation to address the rising risk of modern slavery.
“The rest of the world pay attention to where imports come from and have a key understanding of where their products, services and geography are linked to higher instances of child and forced labour and this just doesn’t happen in our country.
“Businesses need to step up and put pressure on the government to ensure that this legislation comes through, but they also need to be walking the talk by carrying out this due diligence themselves.”
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