RSE workers: ‘Nothing will happen’

Workers at the centre of a Newsroom investigation want to go home, but fear the Government is trying to sweep the whole thing under the rug by carting them off before their claims can be fully investigated

A group of seasonal workers in Hawkes Bay will be denied the chance to eyeball their boss in court after a decision was made to shunt them off to Auckland against their wishes.

There has been an outpouring of support from the public after a Newsroom investigation exposed the treatment of RSE workers employed by Pick Hawke's Bay.  

On tape, their boss Anthony Rarere can be heard threatening to withhold cash payments and delay their flights home because they complained to MBIE.

"They're shipping me fast so there's no action. Once I'm out everything finish. Nothing will happen,"

But his workers won't be in court to see it because they were put onto a bus on Sunday and taken to Auckland with less than two days' notice.

"How can they hold us for this long and no one help. And then when everyone learns what's happening they're just going to send us away so quickly."

One worker, Lyn Soapi, started crying when asked for comment after boarding the vehicle: "I'm heartbroken because nothing is resolved".

Soapi was admitted to the emergency department of Hawke's Bay Hospital on Thursday night for a stress-induced medical condition.

"How can they hold us for this long and no one help. And then when everyone learns what's happening they're just going to send us away so quickly."

Their requests for free legal advice and translators have been denied by MBIE according to the group's representatives. The group has alleged abuses of employment and immigration law beyond the assault charge.

"They learn this is happening and this is their idea of helping us...all those big people, I don't trust them now. I don't trust them, it's just the same everywhere."

Danny Lau said he felt like they were being denied justice and treated like "picanninies" (small children) by the Government and MBIE.

"They're shipping me fast so there's no action. Once I'm out everything finish. Nothing will happen.

"The news made noise so if I stay and talk maybe they are worried they will look bad. I expected they will act different from [the] Solomon [Islands Government], but it looks like the same process like there. Corruption is here.

"I would like justice...Am I human being or me black or another people?"

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said an investigation into the claims of these workers was underway and would continue.

"I am concerned the workers get the support they need and have asked for further advice on this.”

'They are more about the employer being held accountable'

Advocate for the group Jason Sheardown said many members of the public had donated food and money directly to the workers who were now well-fed after having been forced to survive on their savings from the year's harvest (which worked out to $30 a week for some).

"They are more after the employer giving back what they are entitled to and being held accountable for what they've done."

On Saturday advocates for the workers revealed the minister in charge had been notified of their claims well in advance of media coverage.

The workers sent Lees-Galloway an audio recording of their boss threatening to withhold their flights - with allegations an MBIE investigation into the whole matter had been botched - nearly two weeks before a Newsroom investigation into the issue was published.

They never received a reply. 

National Party Immigration spokesman Stuart Smith said Lees-Galloway should have brought in the integrity unit of MBIE to investigate as soon as his office received that email. 

"The minister should be holding his office to account over this. It’s simply not good enough, given the importance of our RSE workers to the economy of New Zealand."

"It’s incredibly concerning that the minister’s office wouldn’t even provide some form of reply to such serious allegations."

After Newsroom's investigation was published Lees-Galloway said he had "demanded assurances" from Immigration New Zealand that workers employed by Rarere were safe.

“I am advised that senior Immigration New Zealand staff are going to visit tomorrow to double check that this has happened. I expect the welfare of the workers involved to be prioritised," he told Newsroom on Thursday.

"Why are you sending them back?...You've got to ask well how much commitment have you got to carrying it through?"

The workers and their advocates fear their removal from Hawke's Bay on Sunday is an attempt to shut them up after their claims embarrassed the organisation in charge of regulating the RSE scheme. 

Immigration lawyer Aaron Martin - who is not representing these workers - said it would be difficult for MBIE to investigate their claims of exploitation once they left because it would be a case based purely on affidavit evidence. 

A lack of legal advice meant they also were unlikely to know what they should tell INZ when they met officials in Auckland.

"Immigration New Zealand sometimes have this tendency to say 'oh yes we're going to investigate exploitation' and in the course of doing so completely f..k over the migrant worker who complained about it."

"Again you ask yourself well why are you sending them back?...You've got to ask, well, how much commitment have you got to carrying it through?"

"It does sound a bit weird."

Smith said it seemed like MBIE was making a "clumsy" attempt to sweep the whole thing under the carpet. 

"The allegations must be properly investigated and workers supported, not silenced."

An audiotape revealed an MBIE investigator had been the one to reveal the identities of the workers who had complained.

"You've got to ask yourself: are they the best people to investigating that sort of thing?"

The investigator, Rick Brown, has claimed he had implied consent to reveal the worker's identities, but this has been strongly denied by the worker's advocates.

Brown was later taken off the investigation because of concerns a conflict of interest existed.

Martin said one major flaw in the Government's approach to investigating migrant exploitation was that no independent agency was available to look into migrant worker claims.

All agencies fell under the umbrella of the MBIE - which meant nobody truly independent was available to investigate these cases.

"You've got to ask yourself: are they the best people to be investigating that sort of thing?"

Sheardown alleged the workers were given a choice on Friday: they could attend the court hearing on Monday or lose their flight home.

Putting them on either of the other two [flights] would have allowed the workers their day in court and a flight home.

When they were bused out of Hawke's Bay they were told it was so they could talk to INZ officials in Auckland on Monday and fly out on Tuesday. 

After they protested, an MBIE official told them they could go to the court hearing or talk to INZ officials - but not both. 

Integrity unit called in

Labour Inspectorate national manager Stu Lumsden said the organisation was taking the workers’ claims “very seriously” and the MBIE independent integrity unit had been called in to review and check the Inspectorate’s conduct was “lawful and appropriate”. 

“We are confident the Inspectorate followed the correct process and procedures in dealing with the initial complaint about Pick Hawke’s Bay.

”The Labour Inspectorate is satisfied that no breach of confidentiality or privacy occurred and all of the engagements between the Inspectorate and the employer occurred with the knowledge and consent of the workers’ representatives.”

Lumsden said the organisation had concluded there was no personal relationship between those concerned and people in the Inspectorate “outside of the interactions as part of the RSE scheme”. 

“A new Inspector was appointed to the case after more serious allegations about the employer surfaced, to alleviate concerns raised by the representatives.”

Rarere 'on leave'?

Meanwhile Pick Hawkes Bay claims it has put Rarere on leave after Newsroom's investigation.

However the organisation wouldn't answer questions about whether Rarere was still on the executive as a secretary of PHB.

"This is now an employment issue so Pick HB will not be commenting any further relating to Mr Rarere". 

A full list of officers associated with PHB has not been filed with the societies office (the organisation is an incorporated society rather than a company) so it is difficult to say who the other officers in the organisation are. 

Newsroom's request for a list of officers associated with PHB was denied by the organisation through their spokesperson, Damon Harvey, who is a two-term Hawke's Bay District Councillor and the director of a public relations agency.

Rarere's signature is a constant feature on financial statements submitted to the societies office on the organisation's behalf where he is listed as the organisation's secretary. At the time of the tape recording he was also employed as PHB's general manager.

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