Let’s not delude ourselves, temporary migrant workers are being exploited in this country – and it’s nothing new, writes Christina Stringer 

The reality of slavery, human trafficking and the exploitation of temporary migrant workers in New Zealand was exposed last month with the successful conviction of a 66-year-old man in the Napier Crown Court.

Joseph Matamata was found guilty on 13 charges of dealing with slaves and 10 charges of trafficking people. This was the first time the slavery charge was used in New Zealand. It is the fourth people-trafficking trial but only the second that has led to a people trafficking conviction. Defendants in the other two trials were found not guilty of people trafficking but guilty of other offences. 

On the same day Matamata was sentenced to 11 years, the Government announced policy changes to further address the exploitation of temporary migrant workers. These changes were a result of an extensive review undertaken by MBIE into migrant worker exploitation in New Zealand. Research I undertook with colleagues fed into this review.

The facts of the Matamata case, which the judge described as “abhorrent”, might have surprised some New Zealanders who think trafficking and slavery are crimes that only take place overseas. But let us not delude ourselves, temporary migrant workers are being exploited in this country – and it is nothing new. One only needs to scan media headlines over the past years to find reports of exploitation, and they are becoming more common.

Just this week in the media have been reports of the exploitation of migrant workers working for Ravinder Arora, a franchisee owner of Bottle-O stores. Arora is reported as paying his staff as little as $7 per hour. It is also reported that he has failed 19 investigations by the Labour Inspectorate.

We do not know how extensive exploitation is, and numbers of victims are difficult to estimate as this is a population that is vulnerable for a number of reasons. Some are open to exploitation because of debt associated with coming to New Zealand and their visa status, as well as difficulties in finding employment and their lack of knowledge of employment rights. In some instances, employer-sponsored visas feed into the vulnerability of migrant workers.

Many do not speak up because they fear losing their jobs and, by extension, their visas, making them subject to deportation. They may also not speak up because of the fear of losing opportunities – and so their exploitation continues: They are underpaid, they experience poor working conditions and, in some cases, poor living conditions. Some are required to pay back a portion of their wages to their employer in what are becoming elaborate schemes. Workers were paid their legal entitlements, thus allowing their employer to maintain legitimate wage records, with the requirement they pay back cash to their employer – undercutting their legal entitlement. Others are subject to mental and emotional abuse, some even physical abuse – a major factor in the Matamata case.

So what is the Government doing to help the plight of these workers? It is proposing a set of policy and operational changes focused on prevention, protection and enforcement. For example, a helpline will be established to provide a mechanism for temporary migrant workers to report exploitation. The proposed stronger enforcement mechanisms – i.e. the banning of those convicted of exploitation from managing or directing a company – and a focus on franchisees and third party companies such as labour hire companies are also key initiatives. There is also a proposal to create a new visa for those reporting they are being exploited.

But the Government can’t do it alone; unions and migrant support networks cannot do it alone. Temporary migrant workers play a critical role in our workforce and addressing their exploitation requires an across-the-board effort. We all have a part to play. The following cases show what the public can do and how institutions can respond.

In 2016, Faroz Ali was convicted of 15 counts of people trafficking from charges laid as a result of a member of the public speaking up. One of his victims had talked to someone at church about her exploitative conditions. That parishioner contacted others, which led to charges being laid against Ali. 

Last month, the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants terminated Nafisa Ahmed’s membership for bringing disrepute to the industry. Ahmed, part of the Bangladeshi sweet shop case, was convicted on exploitation charges and is currently on probation after serving one year of a two-and-a-half-year sentence.

I have said in the past that the contribution of migrant workers to the New Zealand economy must be valued and their vulnerabilities addressed. My view remains the same – and we still have a way to go.

Associate Professor Christina Stringer is from the Department of Management and International Business at the University of Auckland's Business School.

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