Govt ‘dithering’ on migrant exploitation

The Labour-NZ First Coalition thinks it's acting to prevent migrant abuse. But lawyers and activists say the moves are too small and too late, leaving guest workers and students vulnerable to exploitation. Dileepa Fonseka reports

Three months before the Labour-NZ First coalition agreed to take action to reduce migrant abuse, 26-year old Harmandeep Singh Josan was driving the streets of Auckland as a taxi driver and worrying  about getting a resident's visa after seven years living here in limbo.

The people living with Josan didn’t know much about him. Josan kept to himself, his daily routine appeared to be: work, home, a quick dinner, and sleep. Josan barely even spoke to the man he lived in close quarters with, Vishal Singh. They shared a bed within their cramped accommodation. 

When Singh asked Josan why he never talked to anyone, Josan told him that he was consumed with worry about his work visa, according to a coroner’s ruling delivered by Coroner Debra Bell in January last year.

“He had been worrying about this visa for some seven years,” Bell said.

Suicidal and in limbo

Bell ruled in January of last year that Josan’s death in 2017 was a suicide. Migrant suicides linked to visa issues are difficult to track down because the Ministry of Justice case management system doesn’t routinely record the visa status of people who die. 

Josan was the type of migrant who advocates have said is open to exploitation: someone who was sold the dream, lived in the country on a temporary visa and was later confronted with the impossibility of never gaining residency.

Most were lured to New Zealand for courses after being told that they would be on a “pathway to residence” if they found a job after studying for a year.

These assurances encouraged many to take on debt to get to New Zealand and give up years of their life to work and study under visas with temporary work and study rights. 

That makes them more vulnerable than the general population to accepting below minimum wages and conditions. 

Migrant advocates and others told Newsroom the Government had made some progress on clamping down on migrant exploitation, but criticised it for not doing enough to address the root cause: the vulnerability of migrants themselves and the power of employers who control their visas. 

The Government has rejected their calls for work visas to be tied to one employer. It is also relying on 68 inspectors to police employers of 300,000 temporary workers and students, many of whom are afraid of blowing the whistle on the person who has the power not to recommend they be eligible for an increasingly rare permanent resident's visa. 

Coalition agreement

The Labour and NZ First coalition agreement promised serious action on migrant exploitation, particularly of international students.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway’s office listed the following as achievements in the area when approached for this story:

  • employer-assisted post-study work visas were removed in 2018 so that international students were no longer tied to one employer after completing their studies;

  • for other visas that were still employer-assisted, the Government has proposed accrediting all employers who use the system from 2021;

  • the Government increased Labour inspectorate staff by 30 percent, from 52 in 2016 to 68 in 2020 (there are over 300,000 temporary workers and students with visas living in New Zealand, but they can apply for less than 40,000 residency visas);

  • the Government ratified the International Labour Organisation’s Protocol on Forced Labour;

  • worker welfare was made a core criteria for Government procurement; and

  • migrant exploitation research was conducted, including a review and 10 proposals that recently closed for consultation

“These actions send a clear message there is no place for this sort of behaviour in New Zealand, and that the Government is committed to taking serious action,” Lees-Galloway said.

Failing to get rid of the ‘hook’ 

Dennis Maga, general secretary for First Union, was part of MBIE’s worker exploitation review and said there were more announcements due from Lees-Galloway on it over the next few months. 

“Whatever they will be introducing in the next couple of months, it’ll be based on what is practical before the election in September,” Maga said.

... we are calling this 'education trafficking' because they are being duped.  

However, one area he singled out for criticism was the education sector. NZQA had stepped up its auditing of private training establishments (PTEs), but it was still easy for offshore agents to offer educational opportunities in New Zealand, Maga said.

He had seen Facebook ads in the Philippines that promoted New Zealand as a country with a low cost of living where a one-year course of study would be enough to qualify for residency.

“Whatever is happening in the Indian community is actually happening in the Filipino community and other groups as well,” Maga said. 

“They’re [offshore education agents] going to be offering some sort of diploma course...then later on the applicants will realise it’s not going to be enough for them to get the residency,” he said.

“So it’s like a ‘hook’ for study...that’s why we are calling this 'education trafficking' because they are being duped. They are being misled and once they arrive in the country they realise that is not the case.”

Maga said he’d even seen an advertisement that claimed New Zealand was such a cheap place to live you could survive on $10 per day.

Mandeep Bela says the Government should have targeted offshore education agents. Photo: Supplied.

Coordinator of the Union Network of Migrants, Mandeep Bela, highlighted a lack of licensing of offshore agents as a major action the Government had failed to take on migrant exploitation. 

“They feel that if they put regulations in place, they might deter offshore education agents from sending students to New Zealand,” Bela said.

“They [students] are human beings, they [the Government] need to ensure that they've been provided fair and accurate information so that they can make an informed decision before coming to New Zealand and that, unfortunately, does not appear to be the case,” he said.

Immigration lawyer Alastair McClymont also believed the Government had failed to look at the export education industry and, in doing so, it had left a key factor driving migrant exploitation unaddressed.

“Either they can say, very clearly, to potential students coming here that there is no pathway to residency, or they can actually provide a genuine pathway to residency which encourages students to go down a pathway of good, trusted employers which will then lead to residency,” McClymont said.

“At the moment, it's neither of those things. They're saying there's a pathway to residency, the door is slightly open to give the illusion that it is there, but the only way they're going to achieve that is by getting into an exploitative relationship,” he said.

Visas tied to employers

Removing the ties to an employer in a post-study visa was welcomed by all migrant advocates Newsroom spoke to because it would allow migrants to get out of exploitative relationships.

Visas tied to employers have been criticised for giving employers too much power over migrants, because if a migrant chose to leave an exploitative workplace they might have to leave the country as well.  

Bela said that’s why open-work visas, which allowed migrants to keep their visa if they left their job, were highly sought after when the Government made that change. An Official Information Act request showed 5,000 people applied to change their employer-tied visas to open ones within three months of the change being made.

However, McClymont noted that the introduction of post-study work visas that weren’t tied to employers had likely deferred the problem rather than solved it.

When that visa expired students would still need to get on an essential skills visa if they wanted residency, a visa which would still be tied to an employer, he said. 

That conclusion is noted in the Government’s own report on migrant exploitation authored by Christina Stringer and Francis Collins and released by MBIE at the end of last year. 

“The removal of employer assistance from post-study work visas has been observed by people we interviewed as effective...although this research suggests that this change may have simply postponed the pressure points that create exploitation.”

Catching the bad employers

A single visa linked to an employer will replace six other types of visa. However, employers will need to display a clean track record to be accredited as an employer by the Government.

Exact details around what form the system will take have not been decided or released

Four out of 10 Immigration advisers spoken to in Stringer's report said the accreditation process could become a "logistical nightmare".

Maga said the accreditation system would favour larger employers, but large employers were not immune from getting caught up in migrant exploitation. He cited Chorus and its sub-contractors as an example. 

He also had concerns about whether it would be possible to keep monitoring those employers once they qualified.

Those concerns were shared by McClymont, who said the accreditation process would likely be "backwards-looking".

McClymont said accreditation could work to stop migrant exploitation if the Government actively checked HR policies and employee wage records, but that was unlikely.

"There's no way you're going to be able to apply that sort of model now because business would grind to a halt in this country and there's no way they have the capacity to go and check the wage and time records and HR policies of every single New Zealand employer who employs a migrant. It's simply impossible," he said.

'Where's the whistleblower protection?'

Migrant Workers Association spokeswoman Anu Kaloti said the lack of whistleblower protection was another flaw in the system where she hadn't seen much change.

While several cases had come to the fore recently many were cases that had started two years ago. Often the migrants at the centre of them had long-since been forced to leave the country, she said. 

Bela too saw whistleblowing provisions as a clear need. Even with a new accreditation scheme some employers would still be able to find a way around it, he said.

"The change has to be that migrant workers are empowered to speak out."

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