migrant construction workerMigrant workers are not protected enough to be able to expose abuse from their employers, a migrant workers’ advocate says. Spokesperson for the Union Network of Migrants Dennis Maga says changes to migrant worker rights announced last week are a step in the right direction, but don’t address the reason workers are afraid to speak out against their employer.

Because their visa was tied to their job, migrants were reluctant to do anything that would affect their ability to keep working. “If migrant workers come forward to speak out about abuse and leave their exploitative situation, they will lose their work visa that is tied to that job.”

Immigration New Zealand might issue a visitor’s visa while their complaint is being handled, which means they can not work and earn an income.

Maga is calling for Immigration New Zealand(INZ) to allow workers to have an open visa that would let them find another job while their complaint is being handled.

Under the Immigration Amendment Bill introduced to Parliament last week, rogue employers will face a jail sentence of up to seven years, and fines up $100,000.

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse said migrants faced problems including being paid below the minimum wage, being forced to work extra hours without pay, or having their passports withheld.

“This type of activity is illegal and will not be tolerated in New Zealand. This bill represents further measures as we move to stamp out this abhorrent practice,” Mr Woodhouse said.

However, Maga said the bill did not protect migrant workers enough for them to expose abuse.

He said many migrants working for the Christchurch rebuild were being exploited and employers threatened to send them home if they complained.

Some had signed an employment contract in the Philippines which got altered when they arrived in New Zealand. For example, some understood accommodation would be provided as part of their contract but found they had to pay a high price for it when they arrived in Canterbury, Maga said.

Changing jobs was a long and difficult process which put most workers off placing a complaint with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE)’s labour inspectorate.

“They don’t want to take the risk,” Maga said. “If they complain, they have no assurance that they will be able to continue to work and pay for their rent and buy food.”

A group of 54 Filipinos working in the Christchurch rebuild had come forward to the union which is currently trying to settle the issues the workers raised with the employers. Maga said he could not comment further while the cases were under discussion.

“Migrant workers need the protection of an open visa that allows them to find alternative work while their case is heard, when their employment is shown to be exploitative. Immigration New Zealand needs to be able to exercise greater compassion to migrant workers who are willing to expose the bad practices of their employers but who fear for their ability to remain in New Zealand.”

INZ spokesperson Marc Piercey said it was not possible to issue an open visa to all migrant workers because some categories of work visas were only approved where there were no New Zealanders available to do the work.

Migrant workers who wished to expose abuse should get in touch with INZ via its contact centre to discuss their individual circumstances. Piercey said in some cases, migrants could apply for a variation of conditions to an existing work visa and work for another employer.

“The MBIE – of which INZ is a part – encourages victims of exploitation to come forward. In cases of serious workplace exploitation, migrants who work with Immigration New Zealand and the Labour Inspectorate may be eligible to remain in New Zealand while their complaint is looked at and resolved.”

Cecile Meier
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