21 Sep 2011

More complaints by foreign workers in Cook Islands

4:50 pm on 21 September 2011

A leading opposition politician in the Cooks Islands says complaints about working conditions by foreign workers are on the rise and he's calling for urgent action from the government.

Wilkie Rasmussen says immigration and employment policies need a shake-up to ensure workers' rights aren't jeapardised.

Sally Round reports.

Mr Rasmussen estimates up to two thirds of the foreign labour force in the Cook Islands has an employment issue and he says as a lawyer he's fielded several calls for advice.

"There are workers who were brought in to the country who've been passed on to other people because the employer doesn't want them anymore. There are others who are overworked and others whose movements are fairly restricted because of the working hours and conditions they've got. There's quite a list."

There are about 17 hundred foreign workers in the Cook Islands, mostly from Fiji.

We also have Filipinos workers here but the Fijian workers in particular are the ones that seem to be raising these issues. They're becoming a bit more vocal now because earlier they were pretty shy about coming forward.

With locals' ease of access to New Zealand, the islands have a depopulation problem.

Worker advocate Anthony Turua.

We have a shortage of labour here in the Cooks Islands and with the expansion of our tourism sector we needed some labourers and also in our building industry.

Late last year, the Prime Minister Henry Puna announced a drive to create 1,900 new jobs in the next four years by developing tourism and the wider economy.

The announcement sparked concerns about a growing force of cheap foreign labour.

A group representing Fijians in the Cooks, The Fijian Community Association is organising an open forum early next month to talk about any problems Fiji workers may have.

President Theresa Noovau:

There's always some people who may take advantage of them and it has happened in the past. You can't deny that. The bottom line is the interests of the Fijians are in our interests and we will certainly pursue it once we can confirm that there some issues.

Worker advocate Anthony Turua says the Labour Ordinance of 1964 is way out of date and weak in some areas.

Wilkie Rasmussen says it's high time for an update but he says proposals in the Employment Relations Bill currently at the consultation stage, don't go far enough.

It needs to clearly distinguish between workers from overseas and workers in the Cook Islands, the rates of pay. At the moment there seems to be one system for foreign workers and one system for Cook Islanders

Mr Rasmussen's also calling for a review of immigration policy to be completed.

Cooks Islands Immigration says it's received fewer than ten complaints from foreign workers so far this year

But the Immigration Minister, Tom Marsters, says there's no doubt of the need for new laws.

These complaints have been lodged with the Immigration Department. I'm aware of those. These are some of the issues that we will look at in (terms of) how we can strengthen our own laws to ensure that these foreign workers are not treated in a harsh way by their employers.

Mr Marsters says a special committee's been set up to review immigration policy and the lot of foreign workers is among a whole raft of immigration issues to be reviewed.