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NZ Government Must Protect Most Vulnerable Workers During COVID-19

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts are calling on governments to protect workers against the growing threat of modern slavery.

Dr Natalia Szablewska specialises in international human rights law at AUT’s Law School. She has joined her fellow members of the Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR) to call for greater protections against worker exploitation, be it in Australia, New Zealand or globally.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that around 25 million jobs might be lost worldwide, pushing people into unemployment or under-employment. ILO further estimates that there are 450 million workers in global supply chains, and unknown numbers in domestic supply chains. The current crisis puts many of them at high risk of job losses, reduced income and, at the same time, will expose many others to potentially exploitative practices due to a demand surge.

ALHR has called on the Australian Government to ensure that the human rights of those in the supply chains in Australia, and internationally, are not compromised to meet the increased demand for certain products or services.

Dr Szablewska, co-chair of ALHR’s Business and Human Rights Committee, says the same factors driving the threat of modern slavery in Australia are at play here in New Zealand.

"The drive to maintain revenue might hit hardest those employed in sectors that have historically had a higher risk of slavery and other forms of exploitation, such as agriculture, fishing and garment manufacturing.”

Dr Szablewska says the list of industries prone to worker exploitation and human rights violations could expand even further in response to, and in the aftermath of, the current crisis.

“Tourism and hospitality sectors might be particularly vulnerable. Increasing poverty and working poverty, especially among self-employed and casual workers, will undoubtedly push many to undertake jobs that are unsafe or lack basic protections, including in relation to the conditions of that work, which will facilitate labour exploitation and abuse.”

The ALHR has welcomed the Australian Government’s initiative to establish a National COVID-19 Coordination Commission to lead the private and public sector coordination in addressing the economic and social impact of the current crisis.

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