Melissa Powell has a public health background and a Master of Human Rights. She’s interested in how products, people and traditional cultural norms and values traverse geographic borders in a globalised world. She’s experienced in facilitating cross-cultural conversations, which require understanding and responding in a way that empowers communities. She lives in Sunnynook with her whānau, attends Windsor Park Baptist Church and loves e-camp at Finlay Park! 

Your money matters; it’s like your voice. Where you spend it makes a loud statement. 

Our money is the biggest advocacy tool we have to stop slavery. We may not see slavery with our own eyes in Aotearoa, but we are surrounded by products that could have been made by enslaved people in countries with weaker labour legislation. To be honest, it’s hard for consumers to tell the difference. Products fill our shop shelves, and persuasive advertising campaigns tempt us to buy them. So when we pay money for these products, we could be unwillingly and naively endorsing slavery. Of course, none of us would do that intentionally! So, we need to pay more attention to where we spend our money. 

Our Government is addressing slavery. In 2021 they implemented the Plan of Action against Forced Labour, People Trafficking and Slavery, which sets out the all-of-government approach to combating exploitation, which has a particular focus on supply chains.

While our Government is working through these policies (and eventually towards a Modern Slavery Act, similar to Australia), we can all do our part to prevent slavery. Baptists have been leading the way on this issue. Ten years ago, just after the Rana Plaza collapse, Baptist World Aid produced the first Ethical Fashion Guide. They have since partnered with Tearfund to produce an annual report to help us make decisions about the products we buy. So, when you’re tempted by that latest pair of jeans, take a quick look at the Ethical Fashion Guide and make an informed decision. Your money matters; it’s like your voice, and where you spend it makes a loud statement.

Ten years on from the clothing industry’s darkest hour; New Zealand is still waiting for a law which will change the way we address modern slavery.

2023 marks the 10th anniversary of the clothing industry’s darkest hour, coinciding with the same year in which the New Zealand Government is poised to introduce a bill to address slavery in our supply chains. However, this is at risk of being added to the next tranche of ‘reprioritisation’. Here’s what might’ve happened if modern slavery legislation was in place when Rana Plaza collapsed. 

By Morgan Theakston, Advocacy Campaigns & Communications Manager, World Vision NZ 

On April 24th, 2013, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, workers reported to the Rana Plaza factory building to start gruelling shifts sewing clothes for major fashion brands. They hesitated upon seeing cracks spidering the walls but entered the building after threats of losing their pay. At 9am the walls caved in, and the entire building collapsed. 

The Rana Plaza disaster made headlines globally – it killed more than 1,100 garment workers and injured thousands, ripping open the seams of the tight-lipped clothing industry to reveal its exploitative underbelly. This tragedy awakened the world to the real cost of clothing: severe exploitation and zero accountability from companies. In a pursuit to make clothes that fly off shelves, companies engage in a race to the bottom for the cheapest price with no interest or concern toward the people toiling to make the clothes. It's an unspoken boardroom mantra ‘out of sight, out of mind’.  

A decade on, has anything really changed? When we browse clothing racks in New Zealand's malls or tap “add to cart” online, we still cannot be confident that those whose hands have painstakingly made the clothes we’re buying have not been forced into labour or robbed of their childhood.  

Many countries have since put laws in place to address exploitation and modern slavery in supply chains, and while New Zealand has made progress towards its own modern slavery law, delays and setbacks from the Government are leaving us deeply unsettled. The Government closed consultation on their modern slavery law proposal in April 2022, promising to introduce a bill to parliament by the end of last year. It has yet to deliver on that promise.  

The proposed law would require companies to assess the modern slavery risks in their operations and supply chains based upon their industry, products, and countries they source from. Then they’d have to identify and address cases of slavery. Companies would have to disclose these risks in a reporting statement, which would be publicly available in a government register, inviting accountability and scrutiny. In effect, laws addressing modern slavery flip the traditional business paradigm by prioritising the risk to people over risk to profit.  

If laws focused on modern slavery existed 10 years ago, they could have made a huge difference to the workers at Rana Plaza. They could have saved lives. 

If companies had assessed the slavery risks in their supply chains, they would have known that more than 25,000 children work in deplorable conditions in Dhaka’s garment factories, including enslaved children. They would have known that it’s common for traffickers in Bangladesh to force both children and adults to work the garment industry. Had companies undertaken due diligence with new suppliers, they could have avoided making their products in an illegally constructed building with blocked fire escapes and no routine safety inspections. The building could have been unoccupied when it collapsed, rather than being full of people that were buried under rubble for up to three days, forced to drink their own urine to survive. 

If companies had been required to know who their suppliers were and publicly disclose factory locations, they would have known immediately if they were connected to the tragedy. Families of the deceased wouldn't have needed to sort through rubble to find garment tags from companies like Mango, Zara, and Benneton to determine which companies were at fault.  

Under modern slavery legislation New Zealand businesses would have had to decide whether to improve the conditions of factories like Rana Plaza or walk away, knowing that the risk of irreparable reputational damage through public disclosure was too high.   

Like the Rana Plaza building, New Zealand’s approach to modern slavery is outdated and sub-standard. It is unsafe for businesses and workers. It has cracks. And we need to do something about it – now. 

The 10-year anniversary of Rana Plaza should be a wake-up-call, and the Government needs to stop hitting snooze. The safety of millions of workers who are exploited to make the goods we buy hinges on the Government’s decision to act. Until we have a law to address modern slavery, catastrophes like Rana Plaza will continue to happen and Kiwis will never be certain that the products they buy are free from child and slave labour. A modern slavery law gives companies the impetus and framework to do the right thing. 

Our Government is at a critical juncture: they can delay addressing modern slavery and perpetuate it as a cornerstone of our society or respond to the call of tens of thousands of Kiwis and introduce legislation to eradicate it. But the Rana Plaza tragedy has left no room for feigned ignorance. To delay addressing this issue is a deliberate act to entrench slavery as a normalised and accepted part of our culture. 

For more information on the work World Vision is doing right now to advocate for Modern Slavery Legislation visit:  

Photo: By Wesley Mc Lachlan on Unsplash.

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