As we reach the end of a three-year quest to end migrant exploitation, Dileepa Fonseka asks what the Government has to show for it

There were plenty of points of disagreement within the coalition Government, but migrant exploitation wasn’t one of them. 

A spokesman for Winston Peters said as much when he explained why the Deputy Prime Minister’s name was attached to a migrant exploitation announcement on Monday. 

Peters hadn’t been attached to other milestones associated with that issue in the past, but a spokesman indicated this announcement was part of a commitment to “serious action” written into the Labour-NZ First coalition agreement.

However, the commitment of $50m over four years for measures that included a new visa for migrants reporting exploitation along with a range of penalties, more resources for the Labour Inspectorate and extra requirements for employers, has been termed “too little, too late” by a migrant advocate. 

National Party Immigration spokesman Stuart Smith said the Government lost credibility on the issue of migrant exploitation when it sent a group of exploited workers on the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme home last week before their claims – the subject of a Newsroom investigation – could be fully investigated.

“Some of those things they talk about [in the government announcement] might be welcome. Why are they at the same time rushing people offshore and sending them back to the Solomon Islands rather than investigating fully and allowing those people to see justice?

“You flick out a press release, but use the tools you’ve got and do your job properly in the first place.”

The Government’s migrant exploitation announcement comes at the end of a long road which included a review of the issue by MBIE and an extensive consultation process involving unions and migrant groups that has taken three years – with no legislation to show for it.

There will be a bill in the next term of government to make these changes, but it has yet to be drafted.

“We left them almost destitute for a number of weeks…they would have had to accept any kind of work for any kind of pay just to survive.”

Migrant Workers Association spokeswoman Anu Kaloti agreed with some aspects of the changes, but thought the whole announcement was “too little, too late” and out of step with the way the whole migrant exploitation situation had changed in that time.

She noted the overwhelming conclusion of the Government’s own review into the issue was that visas tied to employers were a major cause of exploitation, but only one of the changes proposed would address that.

“There’s obviously pressure on them to do something.

“It all sounds very good on the surface … basically they will have an open work visa for somebody who is exploited.

“And I’m thinking why wait till they’re exploited? Just open their visas to start with.”

Immigration lawyer Alastair McClymont noted that the coalition Government had started with just that kind of an open visa initiative.

In 2018, it gave some people with visas tied to their employer the opportunity to switch out to an open work visa, but kept another class of visa tied.

Ironically, recent events have left those individuals on an open work visa worse off than if they’d remained bonded. A recent extension of work visas for six months after Covid-19 excluded visa holders on open visas. 

“People who stayed on that graduate work visa with a specific employer could have their work visas extended. Those people who took up the Government’s generous offer of an open work visa will not have their work visas extended,” McClymont said. 

He was also disappointed that the end result of the Government’s response to migrant exploitation had completely ignored the role international education had played in the creation of it – despite evidence submitted by himself and others.

The Government’s announcement on migrant exploitation was given on the same day a $51m dollar bailout of the international education sector was also announced.

A new class of visa proposed by the Government for whistleblowers would likely also require a high level of proof – something that could be out of reach for many. And if migrants ended up in a similar situation to those given open work visas in 2018 then they might have little incentive to report that exploitation too. 

Kaloti said Covid-19 had only made the problem both more urgent and worse.

Migrant workers were the most likely to be employed in Covid-affected industries. They were the first to be laid off when Covid-19 hit and had no access to benefits. Worse, their visa status and place in the residency queue was often tied to their employer – making the need to hang on to their job even more pressing – and leaving them open to exploitative employment arrangements.

In recent weeks, migrant groups have started venting their frustrations at campaign events and meetings.

Kaloti said her group turned up at a meeting for Mt Roskill MP Michael Wood. McClymont said he had seen another group at an event that Labour MP Priyanca Radhakrishnan attended. Auckland Central is another electorate where some migrant groups hope to make their presence felt.

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman said migrants were filling essential skills shortages. Fairness for them and protection from exploitation was good for everyone.

“This actually reflects how much more we need to do because right now with our failure in including them in the emergency benefit and the Covid response has actually left a lot of migrant workers affected by Covid really vulnerable to exploitation in all sorts of ways.

“We left them almost destitute for a number of weeks … they would have had to accept any kind of work for any kind of pay just to survive.”

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