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Labour inspector falls short on investigation

Workers who spent months putting together information about an allegedly exploitative company are dismayed at the unprofessional actions of the Labour Inspectorate - including the handing over of complainant names and details to the company without prior consent. Teuila Fuatai reports.

Over summer, Thomas Shepherd helped several of his migrant workmates gather evidence of alleged exploitation and labour law breaches at the fibre installation company they worked for. Shepherd and a select few did their best to pull together bank statements, emails, messages and personal statements from those willing to speak up about what was happening at Auckland-based company 3ML Services.

The information was supposed to assist in a Labour Inspectorate investigation looking into alleged non-payment of wages, pay rates below the minimum wage, the use of workers’ annual leave to pay for normal working days and the failure to provide employment contracts. Concerns about a lack of proper equipment and potential safety issues were also raised.

However, nearly six months after Labour Inspector Jim Denyer received the information, no progress appears to have been made in the case. In fact, Shepherd and some of those who collected the information contend that some workers are actually worse-off - after finding out that 3ML’s lawyer had been supplied a list of complainant names and details by the agency tasked to investigate labour law breaches. 

The group, who only found out about Denyer’s actions when Shepherd contacted him for an update on the case about two weeks ago, are dismayed at what has happened.

“We went to great lengths to obtain preliminary evidence of the migrant exploitation occurring within 3ML, which was gathered by us at significant risk," he said.

“We indicated to the Labour Inspector when supplying this preliminary evidence that this was only a sample of what was occurring. We expected that the Labour Inspectorate would be conducting a full investigation, building on the evidence supplied [and] contacting the persons whose details we provided,” Shepherd said.

Instead, Denyer took months to make contact with those Shepherd and the group had suggested, he said. 

Thomas Shepherd: 3ML called a meeting and had employees hold signs saying 'I've been paid since day one'. Photo: supplied.

Baljinder Pal Singh, who said he had worked full-time for 3ML for five months at just $150 per week, questioned whether Denyer was up to the job. Singh was among the five individuals named by Denyer in his email to 3ML's lawyer. Denyer notified him and Shepherd that he had resigned from his role at the Labour Inspectorate about the same time he informed them he had supplied 3ML with a list of complainants. 

“He [Denyer] didn’t interview me officially. He didn’t call me or ask me questions,” Singh said of the Labour Inspector. 

Denyer should also have asked before naming people to 3ML, he said. While both him and Shepherd - who no longer work at 3ML - were comfortable with being identified, not everyone felt the same way. 

“Our motive was to [stay anonymous] from 3ML until the very last minute, or when the case is ready to go to court - so they don’t pressure and keep calling ... us,” Singh said.

Shepherd pointed out the difficulty people had in speaking up against 3ML owner Roderick Laus. The majority of staff were migrants who were unaware of basic workplace rights. Many were also under the impression that Laus had sway over whether they could stay in New Zealand, he said.

The Labour Inspectorate does not seem to appreciate the length that Laus will go to protect 3ML, Shepherd said.

"I am unsure whether the Labour Inspectorate are under-resourced or not, but we made it clear on several occasions that several [people] feared for the safety of their relatives overseas and had been receiving harassment from the employer even after leaving the company. I would have expected a more tactful approach from MBIE given this situation."

When details of allegations against the company were published by Newsroom in June, “3ML called a meeting and had employees hold signs saying ‘I've been paid since day one’’’. Photographs of the employees were then circulated on Facebook to “counteract the publicity” from the story, he said.

Newsroom asked the Labour Inspectorate a range of questions about its investigation process, seeking clarity about the actions and timeframes considered appropriate when allegations are made against a company.

A spokesperson responded:

“A range of methods are used by the Labour Inspectorate during an investigation, such as interviews with employers and employees, checking through employment documentation, and collecting intelligence from other government agencies and industry bodies.

Depending on the extent and scope of the investigation, this process can involve varying timelines and assessments to obtain the right information. As explained last month, we expect the investigation into fibre optics contractors will take some time, as we are planning to probe further into the industry and develop a clearer picture of the issues at play.

The investigations into Chorus and 3ML Services are part of this and remain open, so the Labour Inspectorate can’t comment on any aspect of these at this stage.”

3ML has previously denied any allegations of wrongdoing. The company is one of hundreds subcontracted to work on the Chorus network via four large, Australian-based companies: UCG, Visionstream, Downer and Broadspectrum. Since last year, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment - which is responsible for the Labour Inspectorate - have been investigating contractors working on the Chorus network over alleged worker exploitation.  

Read more: Kiwi reveals firm’s treatment of migrants

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