Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Simon O'Connor: Time of New Zealand to step up

In recent weeks several large international companies have been identified as participating – directly and indirectly – in the forced labour of Uyghurs in Xinjiang province, China. The major German chemical company BASF which is partnered with the Xinjiang Markor Chemical Industry was identified as having workers in the company going house to house to identify, re-educate, and effectively harass Uyghurs. It is part of what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) called their fanghuiju campaign.

Soon after, Volkswagen (VW) has been caught up in similar issues due to its cooperation with the Chinese state-owned car manufacturing company SAIC. The recent allegations are that forced labour was used to build a new test track at their joint facility in Turpan, in Eastern Xinjiang. The allegations are serious enough that a major German investment fund may not invest in VW due to their ESG commitments.

VW has also, to its credit, self-identified that some of its Porsche, Bentley, and Audi cars have a part within that is likely made by forced labour. Due to a law on the books of the United States of America, when this issue was identified by VW, it was reported and a remedy found. Put simply, acts of modern slavery are not to be tolerated.

Which brings me to New Zealand. We have no modern slavery law. For a country that talks a big game about human rights, it remains remarkable to me that we still have no such modern slavery law, nor the likes of Magnitsky sanctions legislation either. These companies mentioned above may be currently in the limelight, but there are many more, unwittingly or otherwise, who are benefiting from modern slavery or forced labour. We as consumers are also participating if and when we buy goods manufactured by modern day slaves - be this via child labour, forced labour, and so on. Particularly as consumers, we surely want to have assurances that what we are purchasing has been ethically produced? The likes of World Vision and others have been calling for modern slavery laws and to be fair, a number of local companies have voluntarily set up modern day slavery reporting or because they conduct business in other countries with existing modern slavery legislation.

However, it remains well past time that we put a modern slavery law on our books here in New Zealand. In the last parliament, I had a Bill in the ballot to introduce a very rudimentary modern slavery reporting scheme. Put simply, it was a proposed law that would have required large firms to review their supply chains and annually confirm there is no forced labour/modern slavery involved in their supply chains. The Bill was intended to encourage any government to implement a much wider modern slavery scheme, as I am the first to acknowledge that reporting only is not enough. New Zealand also needs a system which not only identifies modern slavery within supply chains but has the legislative requirements in place to ensure, when identified, that it is publicly reported and then addressed. Failure to do so should come with consequences as well, and not simply public shame.

Governments however, appear unable to progress such a law, getting confused it seems between international modern slavery dynamics and more domestic workplace conditions and rules. As with many of the latest human rights developments, New Zealand need only look at other countries laws that are already in place. In fact, in some countries, they have had the law for so long that they are now reviewing and improving such as in Australia. Again, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel but simply adopt and learn from other countries already ahead of us. The same applies to Magnitsky sanction regimes for human rights abusers – many other countries have a law that we here in New Zealand could simply adopt.

With credit to BASF, when colleagues of mine in the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) wrote to the CEO a few days back, he immediately noted a ‘red line had been crossed’ and that BASF would accelerate is withdrawal from Xinjiang. This is to be applauded.

Modern day slavery laws work. It is well past time New Zealand caught up.

Simon O'Connor is a National MP. This article was first published HERE

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