Government’s failed response to abuse of migrants (Part 4 of 4)




The exposure of significant abuse of migrant workers in the media during 2012 and 2013 prompted the government to tighten up on some laws designed to protect these workers. For example, employers with permanent residency who are convicted of exploitation can also be deported for up to ten years after gaining residency.

The government also told MBIE to actively investigate and prosecute these cases. However, there are only about 40 inspectors in the country with a workforce of 2.3 million and they are already swamped by their existing workloads enforcing minimum legal standards. Australia has three times the number of inspectors per worker as Zealand does.

Every MBIE investigation of a sector of the economy or group of employers has found widespread non-compliance with basic legal obligations.

These investigations have included the dairy industry, construction in Christchurch, Queenstown hospitality and retail, the Opotiki kiwifruit industry, Marlborough vineyards, Tasman pack houses. It would be fair to say that anywhere MBIE has looked has uncovered widespread non-compliance with basic legal obligations.

Treasury preaches caution

Even Treasury, a government department known to be on the side of the bosses in nearly all matters, has questioned the economic wisdom of the current policies. As Bernard Hickey reported in the June 12 New Zealand Herald, Treasury “released a series of papers over the past year that showed its growing discomfort with the increase in low-skilled migrants and the risk that they are displacing local workers and keeping wages down. As the Treasury officials noted:

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Current policy settings may not be doing all they can to support the growth of higher productivity firms and industries, including facilitating the flow of higher-skilled migrants to sectors of the economy where skill shortages may be acting as a significant constraint.

In addition, our current approach to selecting migrants may have encouraged reliance over time on lower-skilled labour in some parts of the economy. This may have been discouraging some firms from either increasing wages and working conditions or investing, either in training existing workforce or in capital.

When Treasury looked at the 21,000 migrants given residency in 2014/15 under the “Skilled Migrant Category” (SMC), it discovered that a “significant proportion” now works in low-wage occupations. The top ten SMC categories are chef, dairy cattle farmer, cafe/restaurant manager, retail manager, carpenter, dairy cattle farm worker, retail supervisor, aged or disabled carer, truck driver, registered nurse (aged care).

Most of these aren’t what would be considered necessarily highly skilled jobs. For most of these jobs, a basic training programme for school leavers would ensure that every school leaver had a path to guaranteed work. This does not mean that the labour movement should support racist anti-immigrant policies. But it also doesn’t make sense for tens of thousand of young people to be NEETs (not in employment, education or training). That is not a progressive employment policy in the 21st century. I believe all school leavers should be guaranteed a job or training. That is a legitimate demand that can and should be made by the labour movement in this country.

Creating a pool of vulnerable and exploitable labour

The real problem is that there is a gigantic scam being perpetrated on the country by big business and their governments. This involves issuing tens of thousands of temporary work and student visas each year in the full knowledge that they are creating a massive pool of vulnerable and easily exploitable labour.


The fact that there are hundreds of thousands of workers who are actually working in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs is proof that this labour is needed not just to plug a temporary lack of skilled workers as is often claimed. It is evidence that there is a need for these workers across a range of roles in the economy – skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled.

Instead of using a rotating door of migrant workers to fill these gaps, there should be a more permanent solution. Migrants that have been brought here to study and work already should be given the preference for the right to permanent residency.

Alongside this, there should also be compulsory training and apprenticeship programmes paid for by employers so that any young person in this country who wants to can have a chance at getting these jobs as well. It is inhumane to bring hundreds of thousands of young workers to New Zealand from other countries to fill a spot in the economy only to be replaced in a few years.

A world without borders

Personally, I would like to live in a world without borders. The bosses are creating that world for themselves and their capital. Under all the free trade deals being signed in the world, big business can move its money and investments freely. Managers of multinationals also have the rights to come and go under these agreements.

Workers will also be stronger when we have more rights and freedoms to live and work without being subject to abusive forms of exploitation.

New Zealand cannot do that on its own. But we could start at the regional level. The reciprocal rights to live and work in each other’s country between New Zealand and Australia should be extended to the Pacific Islands. New Zealand and Australian big business have been happy to exploit these countries and import their labour (and sports people) for decades. Pacific people should have the right to live and work in Australia and New Zealand without being labelled “overstayers”. We are all Pacific Islanders. It would also help redress the injustice inflicted on the many Samoan people stripped of their New Zealand citizenship rights in the 1980s.

Similarly, we should demand the rights of permanent residence for all New Zealand workers in Australia. It used to be that New Zealand migrants to Australia got the benefits of permanent residence on arrival – including welfare benefits and access to education. The same rights applied to Australians moving to New Zealand to work. In 2000, the stand-down period of two years was imposed on New Zealanders to access benefits. Then in 2001, only those who met the Australian requirements for Permanent Residence (skills, character etc) could access welfare and education rights. Most New Zealanders are now being denied permanent residence when they apply. Close to 300,000 Kiwis in Australia are now living in Australia without the equal rights that should be their right. They are in a much worse situation than other legal migrants.

Big business demands the freedom to move its capital anywhere and have it protected everywhere. That is actually what treaty discussions like the TPPA are all about. They have very little to do with trade and have everything to do with creating an international bill of rights for capitalists.

An international bill of rights for workers

We also need an international bill of rights for workers.

We can never stop workers seeking a better life. That is true for New Zealanders going to Australia or workers coming to New Zealand. We should support every step that equalises the status of workers here, whether they were born here or not.

As a start, any worker already here should have the same rights as any other worker to tell their boss to shove it and get another job. Without that fundamental right, the employee has no power to prevent abuses, it is nothing but a form of indentured labour. Such rights were granted to some construction workers in Christchurch when abusive and exploitative practices were exposed there. That right needs to be extended to all workers in New Zealand.

The bosses want us to see the migrant as the enemy undermining our wages and conditions. But there is nothing to gain by excluding them from New Zealand. We need to give the ones here more rights to stand up for themselves. It would then be much harder for the bosses to use migrant labour to undermine wages.

Workers currently in this country brought here by the government and bosses to be used and abused should have the first choice on staying.

Anyone working in this country should have full employment rights no matter their legal status. Workers who expose abuse should be able to continue working legally while suing their boss for compensation.

All workers in a country’s jurisdiction should receive the legal minimums of that country at least. That should apply to all those “foreign” crew fishing in New Zealand territorial waters.

Any employer caught thieving from their employee’s wages, forcing workers to work for no pay, or denying rest breaks should face jail time in the most serious cases. Deliberately ignoring health and safety that results in death or serious injury should carry a corporate murder, manslaughter or maiming charge that can also result in jail time for the guilty.

Unions can expose the hypocrisy of employers demanding the right to import labour while paying a pittance to their staff. But ultimately, the only effective way to turn the situation around is to reunionise the sectors of the workforce that have lost union protection and force the bosses to pay.

Organising these workers has been a huge challenge for Unite over the last decade. Behind a reluctance to join the reality of the fear is often whispered—“If we join the union, they will cut our hours and not give us the training steps we need to get the promotion necessary to advance along the immigration ladder”. In part, that was one of the reasons it was so important to win the campaign against zero-hour contracts. We have taken that power out of the bosses hands.

Migrant Workers Association members join a picket of Pizza Hut in New Zealand in 2012 against exploitation of migrant workers. 

Where we have completely broken that climate of fear, we have recruited these workers in the hundreds. In Restaurant Brands, which owns the brands KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and Carl’s Jr, we have over 2000 members – over 50% of the total staff number of these outlets.

In the McDonald’s negotiations in recent years, the majority of our bargaining team were migrant workers from India. We have dozens of delegates across the country who have come from India, China, Korea or the Philippines – to name just a few countries.

Racism a cancer

A few members of Unite Union have commented to me that we have put too much emphasis on protecting the rights of migrant workers when “New Zealand workers” are also being exploited. It is absolutely true that anyone who works for an employer is exploited in some way. The most fundamental way that happens is that the employer pays less for the labour power they employ than they get for the products of that labour. All of an employer’s profit in the last analysis comes from the labour of workers.

However, some groups of workers are able to be super-exploited for one reason or another – usually because they are in a weaker bargaining situation with their employer. Traditionally this has been true for women and young people. In the first half of last century, Maori workers could be paid less. Until the 1970s in New Zealand, many contracts (including collective agreements) had a lower rate of pay for women. Women weren’t considered the real breadwinner of the family. They were only working for “pin money” and so could be paid less. This was also true for young workers until last decade, when youth rates were finally abolished in most industries.

Some employers take advantage of migrant workers for the same reason. Many of these workers are desperate for a job and often willing to work for less or “go the extra mile” for the boss to prove they are good workers. Some may not have appropriate visas. Often this means working for less than the minimum wage in some industries. This super-exploitation can also be by bosses of their own ethnic group. But it can also be by a multi-national company if the managers are given the freedom to take advantage of these workers.

If we allow this “super-exploitation” to exist – whether it is for women, Maori, young people or migrants – we allow the employers to hold all of our wages down. All wage systems are built from the bottom up. That means we all benefit if the minimum wage goes up because those who traditionally earn above the minimum can argue that their wages need to go up to maintain their margins for skill or experience. If a boss is able to pay one group of workers less or force one group of workers in a workplace to do things that are not acceptable, then eventually everyone is dragged down.

So it is very important for a union to fight any signs of super-exploitation. In the end, we all benefit because we are more united as a class and are able to fight harder to improve the situation for everyone.

unity and solidarity
Unite banner on fast food workers protest. “Unity and solidarity forever” are basic principles of unionism.

But we have to accept that when there is unemployment, it is easy to point the finger at the newest arrivals and blame them. Winston Peters is a master of this craft. We need to be able to answer him and other racist scaremongers that any problems that can be identified as being linked to immigration, including the downward pressure on wages, can be resolved by empowering migrant workers. Anything which undermines their rights and marginalises them further is harmful to us as workers and society as a whole is damaged when human solidarity breaks down.

Unite accepts that immigration is a necessary part of the world in which we live. People will move and should have the right to move in the search for a better life. This is as true for New Zealanders going to Australia as it is for Indian and Chinese or Pacific Islanders coming to New Zealand. Unions should oppose anti-immigrant sentiment and fight for equal rights for anyone who lives and works in New Zealand.


  1. One of the most insidious mechanisms for fostering the problems you describe (which are becoming the norm rather than the exception) is the practice of tying immigrant visas to a specific employer.
    (So much for the free market for a start! – except when it comes to labour.)
    Yes: the Labour Inspectorate is utterly under-resourced – and I suspect by design. As is NZQA where the antics of private tertiary institutions (some of their staff in particular) appear to be overwhelming them.

    The backlash that will soon hit will be akin to the backlash that occurred just a few years ago in Melbourne when there was a large number of racist attacks on international students.
    (SS Joyce still doesn’t appear to see a problem however with people getting absolutely ripped off, then facing deportation without compensation. In fact there are cases where they can’t deport fast enough before some of these cases become public. Thankfully a few people are keeping watch and contact information)

  2. Oh…. and PS
    In many instances, it is not necessarily orchard owners that are the problem, but rather the contracting businesses they have outsourced work to – alongside ‘consultants’ with PR, but all aided and abetted by some in our very own citizen legal profession amongst others.
    It’s not a good look, and it’s about to blow up:
    – selling PR
    – bondage into below minimum wage jobs and prostitution
    – qualifications for sale
    – no refunds for services not delivered (rather deportation as quick as it can be effected)

    – money raised for international fees by way of mortgaging houses/land/etc., borrowed, effectively STOLEN by unscrupulous agents and consultants
    – false advertising – often even WHEN prospective immigrants have done their best to do due diligence (promises of employment; assurances of ‘cross-crediting’ of qualifications, the list goes on.

    SS Joyce shouldn’t feign surprise when the shit hits the fan.

  3. very interesting viewpoint and definitely gives plenty to think about.

    Thanks for your series on immigration definitely been eye opening .

  4. The sad truth is most Kiwis do not give a shit about migrants, and I learned that long ago, being one myself. Unless you can offer some gain and benefit, people don’t really want you here, and rather have you deported. And for refugees, there is ample hypocrisy, and re the rest, I actually understand why many Kiwis do not love too much migration, when it pushes down their wages, as nobody anywhere else would love to become second class in their own country. We need to be careful with immigration, we need some and we do not need some other, the fine line needs to be drawn. As we have it now, the government uses liberal immigration to help employers keep wages and salaries down, and to reduce costs and the rest we are supposed to swallow.

    I think Kiwis have a right to be suspicious and angry about the present dishonest policy.

  5. “Kiwis do not love too much migration, when it pushes down their wages, as nobody anywhere else would love to become second class in their own country. “

    And Maori and other brown-skinned people are liking ‘too much immigration’, even less. More Maori in prison, fewer Maori owning their own home, more Maori suicides, more Maori living in cars. Maori would love to become second class in their own country, because currently they are 5th or 6th class, and languishing at the bottom of the heap.

    And how has the Maori Party being in cahoots with National helped this situation? It hasn’t, apart from saving the Kermadecs for traditional Maori fishing. Sounds like a great deal. Save Raoul Island, Macauley Island, Haszard Island or Curtis Island, for the next Maori migration.

    Away from a country, owned by corporates, away from a country run by bankers and nouveau colonisers who treat the country like a giant monopoly board in the South Pacific – away from the land of the long white crowd.

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