Migrant workers' exploitation fears

Exploited migrants are slipping through the cracks the Labour Inspectorate cannot cover, a former inspector says.

The lack of inspectors and their approach to resolving problems was troubling, the former inspector, who worked at the Department of Labour for more than 20 years, said.

During their time as an inspector, the person, who did not want to be identified, witnessed as few as two inspectors covering the lower South Island.

''If we wanted to do the job properly and thoroughly, in my opinion it's been under-resourced.''

To solve the issue of worker exploitation, a ''special task force'' would be required.

Inspectors had to carry out inspections alone because of resourcing.

There were occasions where the former inspector feared for their safety during an inspection, but it was ''the norm to go it alone''.

Cases resolved by the inspectorate were only the ''tip of the iceberg''. Manipulation and abuse of employment laws was particularly pronounced in certain migrant communities.

''There were ... groups that would abuse their own and that was incredibly difficult to get into,'' the former inspector said.

''There was one group that allegedly kept two sets of books and they would show you one set which was compliant but you knew jolly well that it wasn't what workers were getting paid because you would speak to them.

''[It's] very difficult to get to the bottom of and you would need a team of specialist investigators [to solve it].''

Asian employers often paid

staff in cash, which made it ''really hard to track and really hard to prove'' wrongdoing.

It was one mechanism used by some employers to take advantage of vulnerable employees. However, it was difficult to prove suspicions.

''They do enough book work to satisfy any enforcement person who might come in, but they are really cunning and it's almost impossible to prove [wrongdoing] and it's even harder to get a group of employees to speak against their employer.''

Often, those who did complain were sent back to their country of origin and their complaint could not be followed up.

Language and cultural differences made it difficult for inspectors to interview migrant workers about their situation, the former inspector said.

More than 90% of offences were through ignorance, but deliberate exploitation was the most difficult to prove.

Employers in those situations held power over the employees and it was almost impossible for employees to speak out, the person said.

''I have known situations where people have slept under the counter of the restaurants, so if they were fired they would be totally bereft.''

Most of the cases had to be resolved in the most time-efficient and least costly manner available.

''You never hear about most of [the abuses].''

The former inspector was also troubled by conversations with staff at the inspectorate.

Those who laid a complaint were being referred back to the employer to fix any employment disputes, the person said.

''They tell people to go and sort it out themselves. We would pursue a complaint and frequently there would be no case to answer or it was easily fixed, but we would never say `You go away and fix it yourself'.

''I think that's their way of dealing with it now. I do think it has changed and it doesn't seem to be to help workers anymore.''

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment said in some cases employees were referred back to their employers to discuss their complaints.

''This ensures that for those in ongoing employment, relatively simple matters are resolved in good faith.''

However, it did not mean the Labour Inspectorate would not take action in relation to those complaints, she said.

''Serious complaints which involve potential exploitation of vulnerable workers or systemic breaches of employment standards affecting a number of workers are referred directly to the Labour Inspectorate.''

From July 2013 to June 2014, the inspectorate resolved 1563 complaints nationally, with 68 enforceable undertakings issued and 53 applications filed to the Employment Relations Authority. More than $2.6 million in arrears was recovered by the inspectorate during that time.

The spokeswoman said the inspectorate had two inspectors based in Dunedin, two in Nelson, one in Invercargill and nine in Christchurch.

The inspectors had recently undertaken comprehensive interview training, which included training on diversity and communicating with migrants from different cultures. Inspectors could request the help of a translator, she said.

''Migrant workers and international students are particularly vulnerable sections of the workforce,'' the spokeswoman said.

''Employers who systematically exploit them are an increasing focus for MBIE's enforcement operations through Immigration NZ and the Labour Inspectorate. MBIE is targeting employers in the key sectors of hospitality, horticulture, dairy, construction, fishing and viticulture.

''MBIE will not hesitate to enforce and prosecute breaches of minimum employment standards such as minimum wage and holiday entitlements.

''MBIE encourages anyone with concerns about their employment situation to call its contact centre on 0800 20-90-20.''

 

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