Worker exploitation widespread in New Zealand – new study

14 December 2016
Migrant worker 72dpi

People in New Zealand are working 80-90 hour weeks for $500, being paid for half the hours they work and paying their own salary to “buy” permanent residency, a new study reveals.

The study - the most wide-ranging of its type to date – suggests exploitation of migrant and New Zealand-born workers is widespread across many key industries, including horticulture, hospitality and construction.

“These industries form the lifeblood of New Zealand’s economy,” says researcher Dr Christina Stringer from the University of Auckland Business School. “As well as being a serious human rights issue, findings of migrant worker exploitation puts New Zealand’s reputation at risk.”

Dr Stringer, an Associate Professor in International Business, is no stranger to worker exploitation in New Zealand. In 2011, research by her and New Zealand Asia Institute research fellow Glenn Simmons exposed egregious labour and human rights abuses in the foreign charter vessel (deep-sea commercial fishing) industry. Their evidence triggered a ministerial inquiry and a law change.

Following the foreign charter vessel exposé, a group of six NGOs commissioned research to uncover the extent of human trafficking in New Zealand. The findings are released today in the final report “Worker exploitation in New Zealand: a troubling landscape”.

Peter Mihaere, CEO of NGO Stand Against Slavery, says the research confirms the exploitation that the NGOs were aware of anecdotally and through individual cases.

“This shows that slavery isn’t something that’s happening ‘over there’ – it’s right in our backyards. For our economy and international reputation’s sake – and the sake of all the vulnerable people caught up in this – we need to act now,” he says.

Dr Stringer interviewed 105 people over two years, mostly workers along with members of advocate groups. Most of the workers were working on a temporary migrant work visa, but some were New Zealand-born. The majority were men aged in their 20s to 40s.

The most common forms of exploitation reported were:

  • Excessive working hours sometimes without breaks -  up to 18-hour shifts, and 80-90 hour weeks
  • No pay or severe under-payment with some temporary migrants being paid for only half of the hours worked, or earning as little as $4-$5 an hour
  • No holiday pay
  • No employment contracts
  • Taxes deducted but not paid to the Inland Revenue
  • Degrading treatment: being sworn at or insulted, denied bathroom breaks, verbal or physical abuse and threatened abuse, restriction of movement
  • Cash-for-residency schemes, in which workers paid cash to their employers, which was returned to them as their “wage” – viewed as “normal” in some circles

Patterns of exploitation varied from industry to industry.

Construction: Those interviewed were mostly Filipinos hired to help in the Christchurch rebuild. They spoke of entering into debt bondage to pay exorbitant recruitment fees of around $10,000 each. Some were forced by their agents to sign blank cheques before leaving the Philippines. Upon arrival in New Zealand, their work experience documents and passports were held by their immigration advisor until they’d paid off their fees. There were anecdotal accounts of exploitation amongst migrants working in the construction industry in Auckland, for example, Chinese and Vietnamese workers.

Dairy: Over recent years, conditions have improved for Filipino dairy farm workers.  But migrant dairy workers, mainly from the Philippines and South America, still described abuse, poor working conditions, lack of pay and poor treatment of animals. One farm worker reported having to milk 1,400 cows (with one other person) in the morning and the same in the afternoon; another was required to kill more than 300 bull calves with a hammer, a practice that was abhorrent to him and that he had not encountered in his home country.

Horticulture: Workers routinely received less than the minimum wage (it is common knowledge that it is easy to get a job if you are willing to accept this); some were paid as little as $5 an hour. Some employers threatened to report workers to Immigration New Zealand if they complained.

Hospitality: Workers were commonly paid for far fewer hours than the number worked – one worker reported being paid for 45-hour weeks but working 90-hour weeks. Some temporary migrants work for as little as $4 an hour, some aren’t paid at all during their trial period.

International students: Some students worked well over the hours allowed under their visas; students from one private training establishment said they could pay to be marked as attending classes or handing in assignments.

Sex work: Temporary migrants hired to provide cosmetic services and therapeutic massages have been expected to provide sexual services, which is unlawful for non-citizens and non-residents.

Christina Stringer 72dpi
Dr Christina Stringer

Dr Stringer says many temporary migrants tolerate exploitation so they can qualify for permanent residency or because they were coerced and/or deceived by their employer.

“This research uncovers widespread abuse that’s normally hidden,” she says. “These workers’ contribution to our economy must be valued, and the vulnerable among them must be properly protected.”

Mihaere adds: “Let us be very clear, this research is just the beginning. We need to work together, carry out more in-depth research and put in place solutions needed for New Zealand to be exploitation and slavery free.”

The NGOs are calling for:

  • The government to set up a human trafficking office to coordinate response to human trafficking and labour exploitation
  • Government-funded further research into vulnerable groups, such as Indians and sex workers, including a longitudinal study spanning 2013-2030, to enable monitoring and combatting of exploitation
  • A private sector fund to top up government funding for research, policy and law formation, education and frontline training, victim identification and safe houses
  • The government to adapt MOUs with other relevant countries to include a standard worker-recruitment agency contract, a standard employment contract, a limit on recruitment fees, ensuring the worker has at least one day off per week and that no passports are confiscated
  • A mandatory country induction for migrant workers explaining their rights and avenues for help
  • A “red flag” system  for trafficking and labour exploitation
  • An urgent update of the New Zealand “Plan of Action to Prevent People Trafficking”
  • Training for frontline staff, such as immigration officers, to assist with identifying victims
  • Review the current law to ascertain if it allows for effective prosecution of human trafficking
  • The Government to consider bringing in legislation similar to the UK Modern Slavery Act which would make it unlawful for companies with forced labour in their supply chain to operate in New Zealand

Notes:

The original group of NGOs who commissioned the research were: ECPAT NZ, The Préscha Initiative, Raising Hope, Justice Acts NZ, Hagar NZ and Stand Against Slavery. Raising Hope and Justice Acts NZ have since concluded operations.

 

Associated Article:

Worker Exploitation in New Zealand: A troubling landscape

 

How to report migrant exploitation:

  • Contact the Labour Contact Centre on 0800 20 90 20 to discuss your situation. An interpreter can be arranged to assist with your call
  • Call your local police
  • Call 111 if it is an emergency
  • Call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or complete an online Crimestoppers form to report a case anonymously

 

Contact

Nicola Shepheard Media Relations Advisor

Tel: 09 923 1515 Mob: 027 537 1319 Email: n.shepheard@auckland.ac.nz