The Government moved on changes to work rights for most temporary visa holders despite knowing of the increased domestic violence risk, according to an inquiry into migrant exploitation

When the removal of work visas for many partners of temporary migrants was announced for this coming December, many politicians and migrant advocates cried foul, saying it exposed already vulnerable people to increased risk of domestic violence and worker exploitation.

Now Cabinet documents recently released through an inquiry into migrant exploitation show the Government was well-aware of the move’s potential to increase violence, but went ahead with it in order to get the immigration rebalance underway.

Cabinet papers revealed concerns were raised during consultation that a lack of work rights for partners of migrant workers could leave them beholden to bread-winning abusers, with strict visa conditions preventing them seizing financial independence for themselves and any children also living in a violent home.

Cabinet advice was for officials to use existing frameworks in the immigration setting to try and support people in these positions but otherwise continue with the removal of work rights for these partners in December.

Immigration New Zealand noted the existence of the Victims of Family Violence Work Visa. However, this visa is currently only available to the partners of New Zealand citizens or residents.

There have been calls to extend the powers of this immigration tool to cover temporary migrants in vulnerable situations, such as the launch of Green MP Jan Logie’s member’s bill earlier this month, which would see “potentially life-saving changes” applied to the visa criteria.

At the moment, however, the family violence visa does not cover most of the people whose right to work will be different after December’s changes.

When asked about this, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) told the committee undertaking the inquiry that stricter visa criteria are often tied to migrants under the table

“Whenever there are tighter policy settings, there is a potentially higher risk of migrants working without an appropriate visa and non-compliance with visa conditions,” the ministry told the committee.

At the same time, it’s those conditions that voices fighting for the migrant community say create fertile ground for worker exploitation and domestic violence at home.

It’s a form of exploitation that can take many forms. The committee’s report details workers being denied fair pay, leave and contracts, or have their passports seized, be threatened or intimidated and have their lives controlled by employers.

At the extreme end, it can even result in forced labour, human trafficking and slavery.

Greens immigration spokesperson Ricardo Menéndez March, who acted on the committee, was dismayed Cabinet knew the ramifications of the move and were still behind it.

“I think it’s pretty appalling that the Government knows that they are actively creating conditions where abuse could happen, under the guise of preventing partners working for ‘low-waged’ jobs,” he said. “Not only will this policy increase family violence, but will also decrease overall household incomes leading to an increase in hardship.”

He said it’s an issue exacerbated by the fact that many of the affected people cannot access the family violence visa.

“This is particularly problematic since partners of temporary visa holders can’t even access the Victims of Family Violence Work Visa,” he said. “Cabinet ministers knew this would be a problem but decided to go ahead anyway.”

When the question of how the potential trade-off underlying this immigration change was approached by the Government, a spokesperson from the office of Immigration Minister Michael Wood said it’s an issue he is still seeking advice on.

“The Government is aware of concerns raised about changes to the partner visa,” they said. “This is something Minister Wood is seeking advice from officials on.”

Speaking in parliament yesterday, Menéndez March asked Wood whether he thought these policy settings could play a role in an increased risk of family violence.

Wood was unequivocal in his disagreement.

“I entirely reject and quite profoundly reject the possible assertion that could be inferred from Mr Menéndez March’s questions, which is that visa settings could cause family violence. As I said in my initial answers, the responsibility for family violence rests entirely with the perpetrators,” he said. “Having said that, I repeat again, we are open to making sure that visa settings provide as much opportunity as is possible for people to be able to leave those situations, but they in no way have any bearing on the incidence of family violence occurring in the first place.”

Menéndez March said he was shocked by this assertion, saying it went against the Te Aorerekura (National Strategy to Eliminate Family Violence and Sexual Violence) which every minister is supposed to play a role in.

Veteran activist and Migrant Workers Association spokesperson Anu Kaloti said the changes could make New Zealand the Dubai of the Pacific region.

“It’s shocking that this Government can turn a blind eye on the most vulnerable section of our society under the guise of increasing productivity,” she said. “Even the Productivity Commission’s report, published earlier this year, could not reach the conclusion that migrant workers reduce productivity.”

The report from the Productivity Commission made a series of recommendations in a report earlier this year which called for a shift towards a long-term immigration strategy to drive up New Zealand’s comparably lagging productivity.

Chief among these recommendations was providing a clear forecast for immigration settings over a number of years so migrants could make plans for the future.

Kaloti argued that holding onto the migrants already in the country should be a high priority for the Government.

“Our unemployment rate is 3.2 percent and Kiwis are leaving for other countries. Now that the entire world has re-opened after Covid, we simply do not have enough people to work in the jobs,” Kaloti said. “As a result many businesses are struggling. The Government needs to hold onto the migrants already in New Zealand by giving them pathways to residency, and amnesty to overstayers.”

She said the Government also needs to bring back New Zealand migrants still stranded offshore due to border closures whose visas have expired.

Anu Kaloti speaks at a rally for the rights of migrant workers in July of this year. Photo: Matthew Scott

“Finally, the practice of bonding migrant workers’ visas to their employers must stop if the Government is serious about eradicating exploitation and making New Zealand an attractive destination,” she said.

According to the committee’s report, the number of complaints about exploitation have increased over the past decade, from 31 allegations in 2011/2012 up to 390 in 2018/2019. A new set of reporting tools in 2021 saw the amount of complaints more than double to 855.

At the same time, 11 percent of migrant employers said they had felt threatened by their employer in a survey back in 2019.

Menéndez March cautioned that the real numbers are likely to be higher due to the potential consequences for migrant workers who report their employers – the very same people who often provide their income, accommodation and have a degree of control over their ability to remain in New Zealand.

The report detailed the significant number of temporary migrant workers in New Zealand prior to the border closure that accompanied the beginning of the pandemic.

In 2019, there were 235,000 temporary migrant workers, with the use of migrant labour increasing in sectors like tourism, primary industry and construction. Now that number is down to 170,000, but with borders open again, an increase back to its former heights is well within the imagination.

The inquiry was initially launched in October of last year, as something of a sequel to a review by MBIE back in 2019.

The review brought a group of migrants, businesses, unions and international students together for consultation, and found who was most likely to experience exploitation.

Risk factors included working in accommodation or food services, coming from a lower-income country, having low English proficiency, working outside of visa conditions, needing a job to stay in the country and lacking the independent means to support themselves.

Changes after the review included the establishment of an 0800 number for reporting exploitation, and harshening penalties for employers caught exploiting migrant workers.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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