Migrants ‘super-exploited’ in lockdown

Advocates say they’re drowning in complaints of exploitation brought on by the lockdown, Dileepa Fonseka reports

Migrant associations and unions have been swamped with allegations that some employers have abused the Government’s wage subsidy scheme or skirted their obligations.

Indian Workers Association spokesman Mandeep Bela said he had been “flooded” with complaints, while E tū union advocate Sunny Sehgal alleged some bosses were taking “sole discretion issuing redundancy letters and asking them to leave”.

Anu Kaloti of the Migrant Workers Association said she had been contacted by 10 “super-exploited” migrant workers in less than 24 hours. 

Most of those migrants were on temporary visas that left them in a vulnerable position even during "business as usual" periods, she said.

“We are having to gear up to a different form of exploitation altogether,” Kaloti said.

“People are extremely scared. I mean these are people who are usually very worried and stressed and very vulnerable anyway,” she said.

The four categories of “super-exploitation”

Kaloti split the complaints into four broad categories:

1. People unfairly dismissed because non-essential businesses were in lockdown.

2. Being forced to take sick leave or annual leave.

3. Employers who claimed the Government’s wage subsidy but didn’t pass it on, or fired those workers.

4. Non-essential businesses who got their migrant workforces to come in during the lockdown period.

Kaloti said she knew of a couple where the husband received a $585 per week wage subsidy while his wife was fired from her cafe job without being paid out for the week she worked.

“[He told me] we’ll get $585 a week. Our rent alone is $525 a week. How are we supposed to survive on $60 a week?,” Kaloti said.

She said because wages were paid out in arrears, those who were summarily dismissed often lost pay for the work they had already done.

The usual avenues for migrant workers to raise these complaints directly with employers had also narrowed, she said.

“Because of the lockdown, the workers can't physically make contact and can’t go back to their workplace,” Kaloti said.

“So they will be just communicating over the phone or email with their employer. And it's very easy for employers to just ignore or disregard that,” she said.

Some of those employer actions threatened the stated public health obligations behind the Government’s lockdown.

Kaloti said she knew of an employer who fired their employees earlier in the week, then called one of those employees back during lockdown to do an extra few hours of work.

“He went into work when he shouldn’t have,” Kaloti said.

‘I feel nervous to challenge my employer’

Where migrant workers weren’t made redundant, many felt unable to challenge their employer because their visas were linked to them.

Bela said he often received the complaint: "I feel nervous to challenge my employer in case he makes me redundant. I will lose my job and visa".

Several non-essential businesses had remained operating and asked their migrant employees to come in to work, he said.

"It's very easy for people to say, or even for government to say, that you can talk to your employer [and] you can challenge your employer on certain things," Bela said.

"But it is very difficult for a migrant worker on a temporary visa whose visa is attached to the employer," he said.

Bela said he knew of one distribution warehouse of low-cost consumer goods in Auckland that had remained open during the lockdown period. A migrant worker had complained because she didn't feel safe going into work. 

"They kept the business open saying that it is an essential service when it's not," Bela said.

Mandeep Bela says it's difficult to complain if your visa is linked to your employer. Photo: Supplied

He said he had supplied the worker with the contact details for MBIE. 

"They shouldn't be trying to find out the little loopholes to try and open the business. They should try to understand the basic principle and that is to stay home," Bela said.

Migrants on temporary work visas also weren't able to access social assistance if they were made redundant, he said.

Bela said several employees had contacted him to say they suspected their employer was "double dipping". The employer had allegedly applied for wage subsidies then told employees they hadn't, then asking those workers to take the lockdown period off as annual leave. 

When employers received the wage subsidies, they pledged to pay workers at least 80 percent of their regular wage.

E tū advocate, Sehgal, said non-migrant workers were affected too. Complaints normally came from people employed by businesses without union representation.

He said a large company, which he wouldn't name, had issued redundancy notices to all its workers, then withdrawn it after his union queried the move. 

"He already issued redundancy and then after my phone call said 'Oh, sorry, HR jumped the gun so we are not making that position redundant anymore'," Sehgal said.

The 'trust' system

Finance Minister Grant Robertson introduced a set of measures to address wage subsidies not being paid out to employees at a press conference on Friday afternoon. 

Robertson said $2.7b had already been paid out to businesses that employed 428,768 workers.

“We are running this scheme in a high trust model, in order to get money out the door to support workers, families and businesses who are affected by Covid-19,” Robertson said.

“We will soon begin publishing the names of firms who have received a subsidy,” he said.

“As I said yesterday, I want to hear from anyone who believes an employer is taking the wage subsidy, but not passing it on to the staff. This is a high trust model."

From 4pm on Friday, businesses would be required to either pay their employees 80 percent of their "pre-Covid" income, or pass on the full value of the Government's wage subsidy. 

A scheme to provide workers with sick leave if they had to go into self-isolation was also being folded into the wage subsidy scheme to prevent "double-dipping", he said.

"I want to be clear that most employers who have applied for the scheme have done exactly the right thing with it," Robertson said.

"There are one or two examples that are emerging of where people haven't done that," he said.

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