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Safeguard Magazine

Comment—Slavery here and now

CHRISTINA STRINGER points out that modern slavery exists in New Zealand and calls for legislation to help stamp it out.

In 2016, New Zealand had its first human trafficking conviction. Faroz Ali was charged and convicted of 15 counts of trafficking in human beings under the Crimes Act 1962 and 42 offences under the Immigration Act 2009. Fijian workers promised well paying jobs in New Zealand were deceived during recruitment in Fiji and further exploited here after their arrival.

The trial was described as the “tip of the iceberg” and is not an isolated case of modern slavery in New Zealand. According to Detective Senior Sergeant Warren Olsson of the New Zealand Police (as cited in War Cry, 7 October 2017), modern slavery “primarily involves worker exploitation or forced labour – often migrant workers – and is encountered in New Zealand with increased frequency”.

In December 2016 I released the findings of a two-year research project – Worker exploitation in New Zealand: a troubling landscape – undertaken on behalf of the Human Trafficking Research Coalition1. Many of the 105 people I interviewed faced exploitation in the form of employment rights abuses, while some were physically and psychologically abused.

WORKERS ABUSED

Many temporary migrants were victims of wage theft. They were systematically underpaid, receiving as little as $4 to $5 per hour. One migrant regularly worked 90-hour weeks but was only paid for up to 45 hours. For others, working 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week for around $500 per week was common in a variety of sectors, including horticulture and the restaurant sector. The long hours many worked, often without a break, had serious health and safety implications.

Many felt vulnerable as their visa was connected to their employer. Some described themselves as “prey” while one commented “I feel like they own me because of visas”. This vulnerability was often leveraged by their employer: “they know your weaknesses”. Many endured exploitative employment conditions as they perceived they had no choice.

Some accepted deductions in wages as a condition of sponsorship leading to permanent residency, while others paid their own wages through a money-go-round scheme in return for a job, at least on paper, that would qualify them for permanent residence. The price they paid ranged from $20,000 to $60,000. Because of this arrangement, many felt unable to speak out about precarious working conditions.

One migrant was beaten by his employer; he was perceived to be a troublemaker because he talked to Immigration NZ about the exploitation of migrant workers. He was further threatened with “nobody’s gonna find your dead body in New Zealand”, a threat he took seriously. Another reported his abusive working conditions to his agent in India and was subsequently beaten by his employer. One was forbidden to leave his living premises without permission. He did so, to attend a religious ceremony after work, and on his return was sanctioned two days’ pay.

H&S CONSEQUENCES

It is not a far stretch to link non-compliance with employment standards with non-compliance with health and safety standards. Many of those interviewed reported a total disregard of health and safety standards by their employers. One interviewee fell from a second floor while painting an open stairwell. There were no safety barriers in place. His supervisor sought medical assistance for him through informal channels. The painter was off work for several weeks without an income.

Others I interviewed could not afford to take sick leave as they would not receive any income. Another was penalised for taking sick leave – her name was taken off the work roster for a time after she returned. Often employees were subjected to bullying and intimidation tactics to ensure they complied. Basic employment rights we take for granted – eg sick pay or access to ACC – were not available for those on the fringes of the labour market.

LEGISLATION NEEDED

New Zealand needs to consider a Modern Slavery Act, as Australia is doing. Under a Modern Slavery Act, businesses are required to report on what they are doing to eradicate slavery in their supply chains. Further, we also need to provide protection for those working for small operators who would not necessarily be captured under a Modern Slavery Act.

The contribution that migrant workers make to New Zealand’s economy must be valued. We need to do better on their behalf.

Christina Stringer is an associate professor in international business at The University of Auckland Business School.

Footnotes

  1. *Christina Stringer is an associate professor in international business at The University of Auckland Business School.
  2. 1Comprising The Préscha Initiative, Stand Against Slavery, Hagar, and ECPAT. See workerexploitation.co.nz for a copy of the full report.
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