A bill supposed to give greater protections to migrant workers is getting its final tweaks before coming into Parliament, but advocates aren’t sure it will change much 

Legislation four years in the making to better protect migrant workers could be introduced to Parliament as early as next month. 

The Worker Protection (Migrant and Other Employees) Bill is the tail end result of a Labour New Zealand First coalition 2018 promise to “take serious action on migrant exploitation, particularly of international students”. 

The bill will disqualify those convicted of migrant exploitation and people-trafficking from managing or directing a company, bring in new, lower-level infringement offences, compel employers to provide timely information on their staff and expand the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment “name and shame list” of dodgy employers.   

It involves changing the Employment Relations Act, Immigration Act and Companies Act.

But Migrant Workers Association spokesperson Anu Kaloti said the changes were weak.  

“This bill needs to be much stronger, much more robust than it appears at the moment.” 

She said banning dodgy directors and managers from companies would do little in practice. 

“We’ve known this for almost a decade that people like that, employers like that, take to something called phoenixing where they have other family members or friends who are on paper as business directors, but the exploiting individuals still operate in the background.

“Also timeliness, because systems work, unfortunately, at a very slow speed. Getting the mediation through employment services, getting heard through the Employment Relations Authority – you’re looking at a couple of years easily – and that’s quite a long time for these rogue employers to cover themselves.” 

First Union general secretary Dennis Maga said the changes were good in theory but agreed how they might play out practically remained to be seen. 

“We need to see how this will be implemented because employers always find a way to circumvent them and that’s something that we need to actually test once.

“For example, banning a director to own a company or to run a company is a good step however, my only criticism about that is they must be convicted. So the question is, what if both parties reach a settlement outside court… and can they be actually be suspended while there’s a case against them? Because normally, it takes a while before you can be convicted.” 

The bill will bring in $1000 fees for individuals who employ a person not entitled under the Immigration Act to work in the role, where the job description in the visa doesn’t match what they’re actually doing and if documents aren’t provided in a timely manner.  

The fee for these breaches is $3000 for body corporates.  

Kaloti said the amounts were laughable.  

“That’s just small change, loose change. For employers, even small employers, they just write these things off as cost of doing business so that is really laughable.” 

Breaching these new infringements will also land employers on the Government’s “name and shame” stand down list. 

The list will also include those convicted of breaches against the Immigration Act, not just the Employment Relations Act, of which it currently records.  

At the moment there are 49 employers on the list.  

“This bill needs to be much stronger, much more robust than it appears at the moment.”

– Anu Kaloti, Migrant Workers Association.

Both Kaloti and Maga are sceptical as well on the changes that would force employers to turn over information in a timely manner.  

“It is very easy for suspicious or rogue employers to make the documentation and the paper trail look picture perfect. That’s not a problem for them. So it’s the other ways that are not so apparent on paper – that’s what agencies and government officials need to be looking at,” Kaloti said. 

“The migrant worker can be paid perfectly well, in their bank account, they’re getting what they’re owed, but then they’re having to give cash back to the employer and that’s how they’re underpaid.  

“And that cash back is not as simple as just getting some money out of the ATM. They’ve got very sophisticated ways of getting the money back from the migrant workers through second, third, fourth parties so I’m not sure how this legislation will take care of these kinds of situations.” 

Some changes have already come into effect under this workstream including a dedicated 0800 phone number to report suspected exploitation and a special six-month visa for those escaping dangerous situations.  

Since July 2021, the 0800 line has had 855 complaints and 119 s Migrant Exploitation Protection Visas have been issued.  

Maga said both measures had been good but hoped the visa would be extended to 12 months. 

“Six months is really short, especially if you’re attending a hearing and an investigation. 

“And the day you receive it there is actual pressure that you now have to find work. You keep on worrying, and finding another employer, it takes a while.” 

The number of Labour Inspectors has also gone up from 65 to 82.

Kaloti said the best thing the Government could do right now would be to de-link a migrant’s visa to a specific employer.  

“That would go a long way. The other major thing that would make a difference is offering workers genuine and sustainable pathways to residence from the outset, and not changing the goalposts on them every few years.” 

She said the new Accredited Employer Work Visa went some way to weeding out unscrupulous employers, but said it still wouldn’t be enough.  

“Even with the new accredited work visa, workers’ [visas are] still tied to the employers, so the risk of the migrant worker being exploited still remains.” 

Maga also wants the government to crack down on a dodgy employer’s accreditation – something that’s not currently in the suite of changes.  

“They must be suspended, their accreditation must be suspended. It’s not [enough] to simply suspend them to employ migrants, but in terms of being an accredited employer there must be some punishment to them.” 

Once the bill is introduced and passes its first reading, it will go out for public consultation.  

Emma Hatton is a business reporter based in Wellington.

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