Workers’ advocates expect a rise in exploitation claims as residency pathway frees migrants from bad employers

The hope of residency through the 2021 Resident Visa pathway announced in September is encouraging migrants to bring forward exploitation claims, an Auckland lawyer says. 

Workers Advocate director Nathan Santesso says over the past few weeks he has seen a sudden surge in exploited migrants coming forward seeking to take legal action against their employers for long-running exploitation cases.

“What I have been hearing again and again is ‘Look I wasn’t planning on doing anything but looks like I’m getting residency and want to do something about it’. I suspect there’s going to be a lot more people coming forward once people get their residency,” Santesso says.

Some of the cases he’s picked up are “brutal” he says, including one where a man working for a printing company had been paid $5 an hour, fired for a “simple mistake” and made to beg for his job back because it was linked to his visa. 

“A lot of people have been on perpetual rolling work visas for years. So they’ve been either stuck with their abusive employer or moved on from one to another.”

Some 165,000 migrants will be eligible to apply for the one-off resident visa.

Applications for the new residency pathway open from Wednesday, December 1 in two stages to prioritise those on work to residency visas who have been waiting, in some cases for years, to have their application processed.

The first eligible group are those on skilled migrant and residence from work visas, migrants who have already submitted an expression of interest application, and have included a dependent child aged 17 years in their application.

Others eligible can apply from March 1 next year and all applications must be submitted by July 31, 2022.

But migrant workers’ advocate Mandeep Bela says while the resident application had given some residents hope, he says the Government’s new Migrant Exploitation Protection Work visa had also likely contributed to this. Migrants can also apply for the 2021 Resident Visa while on this temporary visa.

The new category was announced earlier this year as part of the Government’s $50 million five-year action plan to curb migrant exploitation.

Bela says feedback he has received from migrants is that the visa has been easy to apply for and has emboldened migrants to speak up.

“There are still employers who are looking at this as the only opportunity to exploit migrants before they become a resident.”
– Mandeep Bela, workers’ advocate

The visa allows workers to leave their exploitative employment relationship, giving them half a year to find another job while the matter is investigated by the labour department. 

Workers who wish to complain about their employers have the option of sending a form or calling a dedicated 0800 number. 

Once the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) assesses the complaint as credible, the migrant will be given a report of exploitation assessment letter.

But Bela says there are still many more working under exploitative conditions, afraid to challenge their employers while they wait for their residency applications to be approved. 

“There are still employers who are looking at this as the only opportunity to exploit migrants before they become a resident,” he says.

The Productivity Commission’s draft report on immigration settings earlier this month suggested removing visa conditions that tie a migrant to a specific employer. The commission’s chairman Ganesh Nana says these conditions make migrants more vulnerable to exploitation and limit the ability of migrants to find jobs that best meet their skills and experience.

This has been something migrant workers rights advocates have been calling for for years to stop migrant exploitation.

The commission’s full report will be published in April.

MBIE has been approached for comment.

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