How to tackle a global human rights crisis

Did you know that there are more people in slavery now than at any other time in human history?

It’s estimated that 40.3 million people are trapped or working against their will, with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimating that 71 percent of victims are female.

From tech to textiles: the heart of modern slavery

The majority of modern-day slaves, approximately 75 per cent, are found in global supply chains servicing industries such as electronics and the clothing/apparel industry. This means that there may be more than eight times the number of women enslaved within global supply chains than there are women in New Zealand. Antislavery.org estimates that there are also 10 million children trapped in slavery today.

Forced labour accounts for the largest proportion of slaves in the modern world, and is often in the form of debt bondage or debt slavery, where a person is forced to work to pay off a debt.

The 2018 Global Slavery Index found 36 countries were taking steps to investigate forced labour in business or public supply chains, up from just four countries in 2016. Australia was one of them. The Modern Slavery Act was passed by the Australian Government in October 2018 and since 1 July 2019, companies with revenues of AU$100 million or more have been required to track the risks in their supply chains. From 1 July 2020, these companies will be required to report their risks and what they are doing about it.

In our home of New Zealand, the country is already party to two International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions that provide a framework for fighting forced labour: the Forced Labour Convention and the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention.

But with International Day for the Abolition of Slavery now being marked on December 2, it is important to ask where our responsibility as a leading outdoor gear and apparel company lies in combatting this crisis and who has the biggest potential to make an impact.

Using business for good

Working for eight years across thirteen countries as a human rights investigator, Kathmandu's Corporate Social Response-ability Manager, Gary Shaw, has seen the effects of modern slavery on the communities in which it is rife. 

"Right now, less than two per cent of people in slavery are liberated and their perpetrators held accountable," says Gary. "This rate shows that governments and NGOs working on this problem are not going to address this issue without the help of the private sector."

For Kathmandu, this means ensuring our supply chain is transparent and that our workers have a voice. We work in partnership with our suppliers and in collaboration with other brands to proactively address such risks. 

Human rights is our number one material issue, reflecting the very heart of our values and brand.

Xavier Simonet, Group CEO of Kathmandu Holdings Limited

What can business do?

Businesses have the power to target their efforts towards eradicating modern slavery in three directions:

1. Supply chain transparency

2. Workers' voices

3. Sustainable wages

Supply chain transparency

Our social compliance program aims to protect and enhance the wellbeing of the workers in our global supply chain. Our program is carefully designed to respond to the uniqueness of each culture, country and supplier.

This tailored approach is based upon a combination of risk and influence — the risk a particular supplier poses to their workers and ourselves, and the influence we have to effect change. The segmentation of our supply chain allows us to improve the capacity of our partners and the workplace conditions of our workers.

Kathmandu has published a list of Tier 1 suppliers and those factories making our products. Many brands once saw this as a risk, says Gary Shaw, but today it is now best practice. 

"It means that, if someone finds human rights violations in our supply chain, we want people to be able to track us down and let us know about it."

Workers' voices

One vital tool we use to understand worker concerns in our supply chain is Laborlink, an anonymous confidential survey tool that workers can complete with their own mobile phones. 

Person using phone

This tool allows workers to communicate issues such as compromised safety or workplace harassment without fear of retribution from their employers. While the traditional audit process does include interviews with workers, they rarely result in many complaints. This is sometimes driven by a cultural expectation to stay silent about their concerns in misplaced loyalty to their employer. 

What comes after we receive this kind of feedback? 

"We'll ask if factory managers recognise the issues involved and are equipped to address them," says Gary Shaw. "If not, we'll invite them to work with ELEVATE to change the culture of their workplaces. 

"We don't expect or anticipate perfection. What we do require is honest transparent communication so we can work on these issues together."

Sustainable wages

Kathmandu has a robust factory assessment and monitoring program. This ensures that those who make our gear are being paid the legally required minimum wage. While this is a very positive step in the right direction, we know that the majority of workers in our supply chain earn less than what we would consider a fair living wage relative to their country. 

Like most of the human rights challenges in our supply chain, Kathmandu cannot facilitate the positive changes we would like to see in the world by acting alone and in isolation. Instead, we have chosen to work collaboratively with other global brands and in partnership with the Fair Labor Association (FLA) in pursuit of finding solutions for helping to shape a truly ethical fashion industry. 


The International Labour Organization has created a Protocol on Forced Labour to give power to individuals around the world. Acting as a legal treaty, the Protocol works towards three aspects of fighting modern-day slavery: protection, prevention and compensation.

You have the power to play your part in fighting modern-day slavery by signing the Protocol on Forced Labour below. 


Sign the ILO's Protocol on Forced Labour


Head to our Sustainability Hub to find out more about our pursuit of Business for Good, while you can read more about Our Footprint as a company.