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