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No pay in NZ still better than life in the Philippines

It’s taken six months for Lino Viloria to feel comfortable about speaking publicly.

The 41-year-old father-of-three first contacted Newsroom with a group of other migrant workers over alleged labour exploitation and unsafe work practices at cable-laying company 3ML in March.

At the time, the Filipino native had recently resigned from the Auckland-based company owned by Roderick Laus.

He and six other migrant workers, backed by New Zealander Thomas Shepherd, got in touch when they became frustrated with the Labour Inspectorate.

In terms of migrant exploitation stories, the men’s experiences, crudely put, were nothing out of the ordinary.

No Saturday pay

In December, Viloria had laid a complaint with labour inspector Jim Denyer over alleged periods of non-payment at 3ML. Shepherd had followed this up with documents and voice recordings supporting Viloria’s claims. He also provided details for six other Indian and Filipino migrants who had worked at 3ML, and wanted to highlight similar experiences with the company.

Viloria, who is speaking with the help of a Tagalog translator, describes his first seven weeks in the country. He moved to New Zealand to work for Laus in May 2016.

“At first, I was expecting to earn the $18 an hour rate, but we were forced to work six days a week, more than 40 hours and we were only receiving allowances of $150 to $200 per week, instead of being paid regularly. That lasted seven weeks.”

Fed up, Viloria says that he, and the two other cable technicians he had come from the Philippines with, asked Laus to “honour” their contracts and pay them the hourly rate stated on their work visas.

"I was feeling afraid because I am scared he might fire me from my job and revoke my contract and visa.”

According to Viloria, Laus immediately enrolled the trio in a “Chorus training”, and proceeded to pay them the agreed rate. However, even after that was sorted, things still weren’t right, Viloria says.

For the next 16 months, Viloria says he worked Saturdays without being paid. This stops when he confronts Laus about it.

“Roderick said okay, if you don’t want to work on Saturday, then don’t work. But, I’m not going to pay you for the Saturdays before."

At this point in Viloria’s story, he has been in New Zealand for nearly 17 months. I ask: “Why did you wait so long to ask about the Saturdays? Was Roderick [Laus] a nice boss? Why didn’t you tell authorities?”

Viloria, who has come into the office on a Saturday to speak with me, smiles gently and tries his best to explain his actions.

“Us Filipinos, we have this attitude: Because we owe you a debt of gratitude, we will not complain, we will let it pass. But you know, and we know that you did something bad to us and that is up to you if you will do something about it.

“If not, I will just leave it in the past and move on.

“Roderick was not a nice boss. He took advantage of that [attitude]. But, we had no other choice, and we just had to work.”

Viloria, whose own children just moved to New Zealand in August, also touches on the difficulties of going up against an employer in a system migrants are wholly unfamiliar with. Talking to him, and other migrants, about their perceptions of what is normal behaviour, provides insight into why migrant exploitation has become so prevalent.

“I never had the guts to go to him [Laus] directly because I was not the only victim of exploitation in employment. There were other Filipino and Indian guys who were exploited. I was feeling afraid because I am scared he might fire me from my job and revoke my contract and visa.”

Viloria also shows me messages and an email Laus has sent personally, and through a lawyer, threatening action against him for complaining to authorities. Seeing this, and hearing about the thousands in unpaid wages he is allegedly owed, I ask Viloria a simple question:

“Why, after not being paid properly, and not having much help from the Labour Inspector, do you stay here? Is living in New Zealand that much better than life in the Phillippines when you’re treated like that?”

Viloria laughs heartily, and shakes his head as he starts talking.

“First of all, even if they don’t pay me properly, my dreams of going abroad really happened here in New Zealand. Even if I had a bad experience with Roderick [Laus] and even if I wasn’t paid, it’s okay for me.

“In the Phillippines, even if you work properly, you don’t get paid properly. My children love it here too - they think it is more safe to live here and a better environment compared to my country.”

'We're not liars'

Viloria is glad he came forward. Because he has had help and support from Shepherd, and now understands his rights and the conditions of his work visa, he realises any alleged threats from Laus are empty.

Confirmation earlier this week of widespread exploitation and illegal labour practises among Chorus subcontractors is also encouraging.

“It’s good. Now people see that we’re not liars,” he says in a message to me.

On the same day the Labour Inspectorate announced its findings into the first part of its investigation into Chorus subcontractors, I also checked on the status of its investigation into 3ML.

“The Labour Inspectorate can’t comment on these open investigations, and continues to use a number of legal and confidential methods, and processes to conduct investigations," a spokesperson says.

UCG, one of Chorus’s main partners which contracts 3ML to carry out work on the UFB network, continues to work with the company.

“We take our statutory obligations seriously and if any subcontracting company of UCG is found to have breached employment or immigration laws UCG terminates the contract immediately," chief executive Ralf Luna says.

“3ML is currently contracted to UCG."

Viloria, who now works at a different cable-laying company, believes 3ML and Laus should be held to account. 

“I think that Roderick [Laus] and 3ML should face the court and do whatever the right thing is to do. Pay money that they owe, especially to me.”

Read more:

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MBIE under fire in migrant abuse case

Kiwi reveals firm's treatment of migrants

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