13 Nov 2014

Migrant exploitation 'must be avoided'

7:56 am on 13 November 2014

Legal professionals say the case of two Christchurch men who worked for almost no pay for five years is outrageous, and measures need to be taken to ensure even worse cases of migrant exploitation are avoided.

The brothers arrived in New Zealand to work at the Little Saigon Vietnamese restaurant, owned by a family member, in part to pay off a loan worth about $12,000.

They were working over 66 hours a week, were living in the owner's garage, and were paid little - if nothing, over five years.

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But they only asked for help when they were sacked for not washing tablecloths, last year.

They had now been awarded almost $200,000 between them, in a mixture of back-pay and compensation.

Legal worker for the Auckland Latin American Community group Felipe Forero was stunned at the case.

"That is outrageous.

"It's surprising it's happened in New Zealand, but at the same time it's an opportunity for New Zealand society to realise that labour exploitation is a phenomenon happening in the country right now."

He said migrant exploitation was a growing trend, and was worried that there could be even worse cases in the future.

"If we don't do stronger efforts in order to prevent this behaviour, we're going to face more serious situations."

Mr Forero said one idea was to give migrants open work visas so they were not tied to one employer, and knew they had the option to move on without fear they would be deported.

Lawyer at Community Law Wellington Kate Scarlet said migrants needed to know they were safe if they came forward.

"(My) clients have been being provided accommodation by their employer, which often includes food as well.

"So if they leave their job, they also leave their accommodation and food without anywhere to go, and because they're migrants they can't get the benefit so they don't have any way of leaving that situation."

Ms Scarlet said she expected there was a large, unknown number of people who are being exploited, but who are too scared to speak out.

Dennis Maga from the Union Network of Migrants said the message that people could come forward safely was failing to get through.

"Despite the efforts of the Government, Immigration, and even MBIE, it doesn't actually come across to migrants that you will not be deported, you are safe to complain.

"There is always fear that we have to overcome."

He said employers should face tougher punishments than fines, which could happen under potential changes to immigration laws.

"If ever the employers are actually living in New Zealand for less than ten years, then they should be penalised under that kind of condition, and they could be deported as well."

Mr Maga said the amendments to the immigration act were currently going before Parliament, and he hoped to see them given approval either later this year or early in 2015.

Meanwhile the Little Saigon restaurant in Christchurch said it did not accept the decision, and wanted a new hearing.

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