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Blacklisted for exploiting migrant workers in NZ

More than 70 migrant-exploiting employers from a range of industries have made MBIE’s latest blacklist of law-flouting companies.

The list, released yesterday - six months since employers were threatened with tougher penalties for failing to meet minimum employment standards for migrant workers - indicates almost no industries are immune to wage and labour theft in New Zealand.

From a Christchurch massage service, to a Northland petrol station and even transport heavy-hitter Mainfreight, 73 businesses of all sizes and types were caught by the labour inspectorate scamming migrant workers from April 1 to September 30.

As part of the tougher rules, those businesses have been banned from hiring migrant workers for at least six months. Two companies - car dealer Direct Auto Importers Limited and labour hire firm BBS Horticulture Limited - were sanctioned with the longest “stand-down” period of two years. Companies identified by the labour inspectorate had serious breaches of the Employment Relations Act (ERA), Holidays Act, Wages Protection Act and/or the Minimum Wage Act.

University of Auckland professor Christina Stringer, whose 2016 research highlighted abuse of migrant workers’ rights in New Zealand, believed MBIE’s blacklist was the first step in tackling problems of migrant worker exploitation.

“There are businesses that are reliant, so they need to abide by minimum employment standards in order to have that right to higher migrant workers.”

Stringer, a faculty member of the university’s business school, reiterated incumbent Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse’s comments from February outlining the reliance of New Zealand’s economy on foreign workers.

“I hope that measures like this become a significant deterrent to those industry sectors that are so reliant on migrant workers."

- Christina Stringer

“Access to the international labour market is a privilege, not a right and if employers abuse that privilege by exploiting migrants or failing to comply with employment law, there will be consequences,” Woodhouse said at the time he announced the new stand-down scheme.

“It is simply unacceptable that those employers who exploit migrant workers are still able to recruit from the international labour market and disadvantage those employers who do the right thing.”

Stringer, who interviewed more than 100 people - including many migrant workers - over a two-year period for her research, was unsurprised by the 73-strong MBIE blacklist.

“I think it’s quite low compared to what it should be.

“What is crucial about MBIE publishing this information is that if migrant workers don’t have confidence in the system to uphold their rights - then why would they come forward and report their working conditions?”

Increasing the number of labour inspectors would assist in clamping down on non-compliant employers - however it was too early to tell whether the tougher penalties would be enough of a deterrent to stop illegal behaviour, she said.

Stringer’s research, produced for a collective of NGO’s organised under the Human Trafficking Research Coalition, found migrant worker exploitation was widespread across a range of key industries in New Zealand, including construction, dairy, horticulture and hospitality

Of the 73 companies identified by the labour inspectorate for violations in yesterday’s list, about two-thirds operated in the construction/trades, food and horticulture industries.

“I hope that measures like this become a significant deterrent to those industry sectors that are so reliant on migrant workers,” Stringer said.

Providing assurance to migrant workers that they were entitled to minimum employment standards, and that problems with substandard working conditions would be considered seriously, was also a significant part of MBIE’s work, she said

“Many of them [migrant workers] are vulnerable in the fact that they rely on their employer to stay in New Zealand, so they are not going to speak up necessarily in these type of cases.

“If they don’t have confidence that something is going to be done, then they are even less likely to speak up,” Stringer said.

Meanwhile, Mainfreight - caught out for employing people without using legal contracts - will once again be able to recruit migrant workers at the end of this month, when its six-month stand-down period concludes.