As further cases of migrant worker exploitation hit the headlines, officials grapple with the extent of the problem. Laura Walters looks at what the Government is doing to try and stamp out this shameful issue.

Those tasked with detecting and stopping migrant worker exploitation have found it in everywhere they’ve looked. Now the minister is sending a warning to those who are skirting the law.

The Government is in the midst of trying to crack down on migrant worker exploitation – one of its coalition agreement promises.

But putting changes in place to deal with a problem is difficult when the exact scale and scope is unknown.

A Cabinet paper and briefing documents to Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway show despite a growing awareness of the issue, the extent of the problem continues to elude policy makers.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway says what he’s seen since coming into Government has reinforced his suspicions about the problem, and is sending a warning to dodgy and exploitative employers.

“If you’re skirting on the edges of the law, now is the time to tidy up your game.”

New research

In the hopes of getting a better understanding, ahead of making further policy and regulatory changes, Lees-Galloway has ordered a new research project.

However, National Party immigration spokesman Michael Woodhouse is cynical about yet another inquiry, which he says will likely serve to delay action.

He also suspects this research is likely to come up against the same barriers that have stopped officials painting a clear picture of the issue to date.

The MBIE-commissioned research, which will be carried out by researchers from the University of Auckland and Waikato University, was initially planned as a formal inquiry, but was later swapped for a research project, to sit alongside a consultation panel.

The objective of the project is to reveal the extent of the issue in order to make recommendations for changes to the system and regulations.

Lees-Galloway also hopes using researchers and a panel of representatives from advocacy and industry groups will make those experiencing or witnessing exploitation more likely to come forward, than if it were led my enforcement officials.

So far in its mission to address the issue, the Government has changed the student work visa scheme, given Immigration New Zealand further money through Budget 2018 to increase the number of labour inspectors, and now has a proposal to change the temporary work visa scheme.

These proposed visa changes, announced at the end of 2018, include lifting the threshold to become an accredited employer. The Government hopes this will be another tool in the fight against exploitation.

But it will take 12 to 18 months before the impact of any changes are really felt.

Exploitation everywhere they look

A briefing paper from MBIE to Lees-Galloway in November 2017 – two months after the last election – says migrants are more vulnerable to exploitation, but it is difficult to assess the scale of the problem.

“While it is difficult to accurately assess the scale of migrant exploitation in New Zealand, it is almost certainly greater than previously recognised.

“The LI [Labour Inspectorate] and INZ [Immigration New Zealand] have uncovered exploitation in every sector and region where they have looked for it, indicating that this is not an issue limited to certain specific industries or locations.”

Horrific cases of migrant worker and international student exploitation have made headlines in recent years.

The first case to capture the nation’s attention was the Masala case. Between 2012 and 2014 Indian migrant workers at the food chain were forced to under-record their hours, return some of their pay to their employer and were not paid any holiday pay.

In 2016, the first person in New Zealand was sentenced for human trafficking.

Since then there has been a raft of stories, including international students sold fake dreams and later being forced home with no qualification and no money, and a recently uncovered case of a slave boss who has allegedly been operating in the Hawke’s Bay for decades.

Last week, a group of Chinese construction workers were left without jobs and kicked out of their temporary accommodation.

The group paid thousands of dollars for work visas and were given contracts through a labour hire company. Now the Government is having to step in to help the 30 workers who have been left without work or a place to live.

Lees-Galloway says there’s still an awful lot of work to do in order to stamp out exploitation, adding that the Government needs to send a clear signal of how serious it is about the issue.

So far, most employers have been supportive of changes, he says, adding that the majority treat their staff well, and operate within the law, but a few poor performers pull the others down.

Tightening rules will make it a more level playing field, he says.

“The LI [Labour Inspectorate] and INZ [Immigration New Zealand] have uncovered exploitation in every sector and region where they have looked for it, indicating that this is not an issue limited to certain specific industries or locations.”

‘A few rotten apples’

National’s Woodhouse agrees with Lees-Galloway that most employers operate within the law.

“There are a few rotten apples,” he says.

While the exact extent of the problem is unknown, Woodhouse says he doesn’t believe it’s as bad as the Government is making out.

He warns of over-egging the issue, which could lead to reputational damage around the world – something potentially damaging for a trading nation.

While the Government may want to gather further data on the issue, Woodhouse says he believes the new research will not paint a clear picture.

Barriers to people coming forward include fear of authority and possibly being complicit in breaking the law.

And people and groups who do share their experiences are likely to be those affected by exploitation, which can lead to a skewed view of the problem.

Research or inquiry?

The research, which kicked off in November, is expected to return results mid-year.

Briefing documents and correspondence between Lees-Galloway and MBIE show the ministry initially recommended an internal inquiry but later suggested a statutory ministerial inquiry if it were to hear directly from workers – in order to protect their information and the natural justice recourse of those involved.

But a letter to the prime minister from the minister in June 2018 shows Lees-Galloway initially settled on a non-statutory inquiry, saying it showed the Government was serious about the issue, without the cost and lengthiness of a statutory inquiry.

Late in the piece, a formal inquiry was canned altogether in favour of a research project.

This is a Government that’s been heavily criticised for its number of inquiries, which are costly and have the propensity to delay action.

Lees-Galloway says the Government can be “more nimble” with a research project and react to any findings or recommendations faster.

He hopes people will still take the research seriously, even if it’s not a formal inquiry.

Meanwhile, Woodhouse says he’s “very cynical” about essentially another inquiry which is unlikely to get clear data, and in the process delay immediate action.

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