On April 1, the lawyer representing nine Chinese construction workers being held at Mt Eden Prison, the Honourable Matthew Robson, gained access to them only after getting the assistance of Green MP Ricardo Menendez. A tenth worker is being held elsewhere and we have not been told where.
MPs have a legal right to access prisoners at any time although it is a right that does not usually have to be invoked. It was invoked this time because the government departments responsible refused to even acknowledge Matt Robson’s repeated requests for a visit.
But we were only allowed one-hour with nine workers and a translator having to be used. We could only find out a fraction of what we needed to know to try and stop the planned deportations.
In addition, in a petty act of cruelty, none of these workers had been allowed to call their families to tell them what was happening to them and why their phones weren’t being answered.
Just before arriving at the prison we found out that two of the workers were scheduled to be deported that night and the rest over the next few weeks. The authorities are simply ignoring the fact they now have representation and wanted time for us to lodge an appeal based on the need for further investigations into migrant worker exploitation and human trafficking.
(Update: One worker escaped custody on the way to the airport but subsequently handed himself back into the custody of the police. This was clearly an act that shows the stress and desperation they have been subject to.)
Both Ricardo Mendenez and Matt Robson wrote urgent appeals after the visit to the Minister of Immigration Kris Faafoi to try and stop the deportations and win freedom for the men.
This cruel and heartless story unfolded as follows. As you read the story, think about the fact that these are just construction workers who had been sold a lie, not a criminal gang.
On 23 March, 10 migrant workers were arrested at various building sites in West Auckland. Unite Union decided it wanted to see if it could offer some assistance to these workers because we had some knowledge of the widespread migrant labour exploitation that exists in this industry.
It took several days before we could even find out where they were. I read a media report of the arrests and went to the Auckland Police Station on Friday, March 26. The office staff could not tell me if any were held there because it was an Immigration issue. I rang the Minister of Immigration Kris Faafoi’s office at 1 pm and the call went to the answerphone.
I left an urgent message which wasn’t responded to. The answerphone message gave a number for urgent matters. I rang that number but couldn’t get through because it wouldn’t accept calls from a mobile phone!
I kept ringing various people with connections and eventually got a call after 5pm from someone from Enforcement at Immigration NZ who said they were being held at Mt Eden Prison and Corrections New Zealand needed to approve a visit. All I could get from him was that he would not object to a visit if I requested it.
Now, I had to try and get hold of someone in Corrections to get a visit over the weekend. Eventually, we got to visit 9 detainees on Sunday March 28 for two hours.
What we discovered was that the workers were not even questioned about if or how they were being exploited by employers in New Zealand or human trafficking agents in China. We discovered they had no chance to get legal representation. And they had not been able to call anyone at home to tell them what was happening. I complained about the lack of phone calls to the Minister of Corrections office immediately after the visit but nothing had changed by the time of the second visit.
While we were there and had made clear that we were now the legal representatives for the workers the police turned up at the prison to take one of the workers we were interviewing to the airport for deportation that night. We tried to object and argue but it was made clear to us that the police would take this person.
However, the Chinese authorities told Immigration NZ that the prisoners needed to be held in isolation for two weeks before they could board a plane.
Only two-weeks ago, I attended a two-day conference at parliament sponsored by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) headed “Take the next step: Collaborating together to end modern day slavery and worker exploitation within Aotearoa New Zealand”. The two government Ministers responsible Kris Faafoi, and Michael Wood, Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety, had pledged to stamp out these forms of exploitation.
Again and again it was explained at the conference that the visa the worker was on was not important. What was important was if the workers were receiving the minimum legal entitlements in New Zealand and if they had been forced to pay large fees to trafficking agents to get the visas and jobs.
We were also told that the government would make it easier for workers subject to exploitation to complain and not be victimised if they do, including being given visas whilst investigations were happening.
Information for migrants
Some employers know that migrant workers can be afraid to report exploitation at work, especially if they are:
- working when their visa does not allow them to
- working New Zealand unlawfully because their visa has expired
- worried they will have to leave New Zealand.
Some employers use this fear to take away your rights. This is wrong. The New Zealand Government wants to stop employers from exploiting migrants. We want you to report any exploitation at work.
If you report exploitation, you may be able to stay in New Zealand while we investigate and prosecute your employer. We may let you complete your visit. This can happen even if you have been working without the right visa.
These principles should apply whether the workers came to MBIE for help or were discovered through the MBIE’s own investigation process like these workers seem to have been.
All nine of these workers paid an average of $20,000 to get their visas. Many were promised work visas but only given holiday visas or assured that it was easy to change their visas once they got to New Zealand and found a sponsor which was a lie.
That constitutes human trafficking. But MBIE, the ministry responsible for stamping out human trafficking does’t seem interested.
The reason for this is that MBIE is also the ministry responsible for promoting immigration to New Zealand and creating the problem in the first place. Pre-Covid, Immigration New Zealand was issuing a quarter of a million temporary work visas a year and entire industries, like construction, had become dependent on migrant labour. 300,000 workers were here on one form of visa or another with little chance of going home easily and safely. Again and again, audits done by MBIE of employers in these industries found that the big majority failed to pay minimum legal entitlements but never faced legal sanctions.
Visas are often tied to employers in a form of bonded labour. The subcontracting system that operates in these industries also means that the head contractor gets the lowest price being bid for a job and has no responsibility for ensuring minimum legal entitlements are observed. Cash jobs without written agreements or tax paid become the norm at the bottom of the food chain.
Except for the high profile Masala Restaurants case, almost no employer has ever been prosecuted for employing workers on the wrong visa or breaching minimum legal entitlements or failing to pay tax.
Immigration NZ issued some of this group of ten workers 5-year multiple entry visas just two days after they applied. Does that not seem suspicious? Why isn’t MBIE interested in investigating how that was able to happen? Is there corruption within their own department?
MBIE seems to see its job and supplying cheap labour to New Zealand industries to use and abuse as they see fit. They seem to see their job as being to protect bosses and prosecute workers.
New Zealand needs a government agency independent of MBIE that is dedicated to protecting workers and prosecuting bosses rather than the opposite.
Anyone in New Zealand needs to be able to access legal help regardless of their immigration status. The Bill of Rights applies to everyone.