The system of mass migrant labour exploitation must be ended


The system of mass migrant labour exploitation was established by the newly elected National Government in 2008 when they radically increased the number of temporary work visas and student visas with work rights while not increasing the number of permanent residence visas. The system was continued and, in fact, worsened, by the 2017 Labour-NZ First coalition.

The tying of visas to particular employers was identified as a major contributor to creating this exploitation at least a decade ago by the Labour Inspectorate, as well as in academic studies and finally the Productivity Commission. But nothing has been done to stop their use.
In  2008, the number of residence, work and student visas was roughly 40,000 each. By the 2017 election won by Jacinda Adern and Labour, the numbers were 40,000 residence (virtually unchanged), 100,000 students (more than doubled), and 200,000 temporary work visas – a five-fold increase. Under pressure from Winston Peters residence numbers were slashed to 30,000 while student and temporary work visas continued to grow.
A whole new, for-profit private education sector had grown up to exploit the search for residency. There was report after report coming out at the time that in nearly every industry being investigated by Labour Inspectors there was widespread exploitation with legal minimum standards not being met.
In the Canterbury Christchurch rebuild for example: “According to the results of audits carried out by the Labour Inspectorate, which is part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, 70 per cent of those audited so far are in breach of employment laws.” See: Canterbury companies breaching employment law
In a 2014 report, MBIE recognised that a major problem for these workers was the fact that visas were tied to employers. They recommended that visas no longer be tied to employers. This was done in 2015 but just for but just for the Christchurch rebuild.
There was no reason to limit the change to Christchurch when every other industry investigated was found to be similarly non-compliant. In addition, this change was recommended by academic studies and the government’s own Productivity Commission. Why are we still waiting?
When Covid-19 hit in 2019, there were around 300,000 workers in the country on temporary visas, some having been on the temporary visa treadmill for up to a decade or more. This was one of the highest percentages of temporary work visa holders in the advanced capitalist world. Following a campaign by Unite Union and migrant workers’ rights groups, the government did the correct thing and gave those with continuous work of three years or more a pathway to residency, which around 200,000 have taken up.
But they then reestablished the temporary visa system with accreditation being given to 28,000 employers with the right to import tens of thousands of workers.
When faced with the screams of migrant worker employers desperate to resume their trade post-Covid, Immigration NZ simply ticked the box to allow virtually any employer to be approved.
Almost immediately the temporary work visas being issued shot up to the record 20,000 a month recorded before Covid. It was inevitable that abuse and exploitation would follow.
Change is needed. As a first step, no visas should be tied to employers. Any employer who sponsors a visa should be legally responsible for the wages of people who arrive here, whether or not they have a real job offer when they arrive. Every lying and cheating employer should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.