Paying to be a modern-day slave

Opinion: The introduction of due diligence legislation is a crucial next step to tackle worker exploitation and modern slavery in supply chains, says Christina Stringer

NZ flag painted on worn wooden background

In New Zealand, we continue to grapple with the exploitation of temporary migrant workers, and despite the Government's significant efforts to combat this, several shocking cases of exploitation and the abuse of the Accredited Employer Work Visa (AEWV) scheme have featured prominently in the media in the past week.

As the media reports highlighted, some migrants paid substantial sums of money to agents, only to discover there was no work for them once they arrived in New Zealand. Or their contracts were terminated shortly after starting their job, or they have been asked to pay additional money to their employer.

How could this be happening in Aotearoa New Zealand? These are not new forms of exploitation, but it is alarming that they are happening under the AEWV scheme, which was introduced to reduce migrant exploitation and provide migrants with greater job certainty. It’s apparent that the reverse is happening.

The AEWV came into effect in June 2022, replacing six former visa categories, and was designed with the best of intentions. Under the scheme New Zealand companies looking to hire migrant workers are required to be accredited employers. As part of Immigration New Zealand's accreditation process, the employer agrees to cover recruitment-related costs and not pass these costs onto the migrant worker, except for airfare-related expenses.

Employers must also guarantee migrants a minimum of 30 hours of work per week and pay at least the New Zealand median wage of $29.66 per hour. Employers collaborate with overseas agents to recruit on their behalf. Migrants are granted a working visa, which allows them to work in New Zealand for up to three years. The duration will be extended to five years, starting from November 2023.

According to Immigration New Zealand’s website, standard applications for an AEWV are assessed based on the company's declaration and automated checks of publically available information, with a decision made within five work days. Here lies part of the problem. The AEWW is predicated on trust, and relies largely on declarations of those looking after their own interests.

In one recent case of exploitation under the AEWV scheme, there was no formal tax record of the migrants working, so they were not eligible to apply for another job.

We continually seem to be on the back foot as unscrupulous operators exploit regulatory loopholes to outmanoeuvre the authorities and existing legislation. In some reported cases, local and offshore operators brokered access for migrants' entry into New Zealand for a substantial sum. Some are evidently pocketing a lot of money.

Although the practice of selling visas is not new, recent cases suggest that loopholes in the AEWV system facilitate the recent instances. In this context, we are seeing more apparent and transparent form of exploitation, characterised by exorbitant fees charged during recruitment.

Upon arrival in New Zealand, the migrant's visa is tied to the accredited employer. This tied visa can, unfortunately, also allow for and even encourage migrant exploitation. Those who have been exploited can apply for the Migrant Exploitation Protection Visa (MEPV), a six-month open work visa that cannot be extended, which allows the migrant to find other employment.

However, the serious problem is that if an MEPV holder can't secure a job that qualifies them for another employer-sponsored visa or doesn't choose to transit to a student visa at the end of the six months, they must leave New Zealand. Some have made substantial financial and family commitments for the opportunity to work in New Zealand for three years, only to find themselves leaving the country much earlier than planned, and seriously out of pocket.

In one recent case of exploitation under the AEWV scheme, there was no formal tax record of the migrants working, so they were not eligible to apply for another job.

To address exploitation occurring under the AEWV, more robust checks must be undertaken during the accreditation process with followup checks also undertaken. Seeking to address modern slavery and worker exploitation on July 28 2023, the New Zealand Government announced the drafting of modern slavery legislation.

The announcement followed a public consultation in 2022 where there was overwhelming support requiring entities to undertake responsibility to combat modern slavery and worker exploitation. The introduction of modern slavery legislation is a two-step process, with disclosure legislation being introduced first, followed by the enactment of more rigorous due diligence regulation. However, disclosure legislation is just one step in our efforts, and considerable work remains to tackle worker exploitation and modern slavery in supply chains. The introduction of due diligence legislation is a crucial next step. We simply have to do better.

Associate Professor Christina Stringer is the Director of the Centre for Research on Modern Slavery, at the University of Auckland Business School.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.

This article was first published on Newsroom, Paying to be a modern-day slave, 24 August, 2023

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