26 Aug 2018

Filipino construction workers - 'We made life terrible for them'

6:00 pm on 26 August 2018

Filipino construction workers brought in from overseas for jobs in Auckland and Christchurch are frequently being exploited, new research has found.

A Filipino worker at a construction site in Christchurch.

A Filipino worker at a construction site in Christchurch. Photo: Frank Film

The report, commissioned by E Tū Union, and funded by the Industrial Relations Fund, recorded experiences of more than 45, mostly Filipino, workers during the last year.

A small number of workers from other ethnicities were also interviewed, as well as a handful of employers.

The report found the Filipino workers were paid up to $16 less per hour than their colleagues from New Zealand, despite having years or decades of experience in their trade.

The researcher, lawyer Catriona MacLennan, said in the first three months of 2018, the average hourly wage for construction workers was $29, but not one of the Filipino workers interviewed was paid that much.

Where some New Zealanders were being paid $35 per hour, Filipino workers were being paid as low as $19 per hour.

The workers were struggling to pay back immigration costs and debts to immigration companies, the report said.

"They also had numerous deductions taken from their pay, some of which appeared to be illegal," it said.

Living arrangements were also cause for concern, with workers living in overcrowded damp housing.

In one case, four families shared a four bedroom home, and in another, up to 10 workers were renting a five-bedroom house with each paying $150 per week in rent.

The report found many are in debt to immigration companies when they arrive and are exploited, Ms MacLennan said.

"Others were being [price] gouged by companies providing services such as a car or internet access.

"Most complained their pay was too low to meet immigration criteria for extended or permanent working visas or residency," she said.

We thought we had signed on for 'a living wage' - Filipino worker

A Filipino construction worker, Winston Lobaton, is disappointed with the way New Zealand has treated him and his Filipino workmates.

Mr Lobaton arrived in New Zealand last year, with 10 years of construction experience.

He started on $19 an hour, $10 below the average wage for New Zealand construction workers. His pay has since gone up, but still does not reach the $29 mark.

Mr Lobaton said it was difficult to support his family in the Philippines because he was not compensated for petrol or parking and his work hours were insecure.

It was almost pointless being in New Zealand because the pay and expenses were so bad, he said.

"When we signed a contract in the Philippines, we were thinking that the wage we signed on for is a living wage."

But once they got to New Zealand, they found the salary and then the expenses left them short.

"It's disappointing."

When Mr Lobaton arrived in the country, a 'pastoral care' company, set up to help workers get homes, cars and internet, was taking $400 per week out of each of the worker's accounts, despite them living in overcrowded housing, and sharing one car.

He said the labour hire company, which brought them to New Zealand, was supposed to pay for the expenses, not the workers.

The government will scrutinise labour hire companies as part of a crack down on exploitation of Filipino construction workers.

The Minister for Building and also for Ethnic Communities, Jenny Salesa, said the government was working on a cabinet paper to address the issues.

"These are issues that have been long-standing, they have been around for several years," Ms Salesa said.

"And so we're focused on ensuring we address it while we are in government."

The government's focus extends beyond just construction workers, to include all areas open to exploitation, such as hospitality.

Pay equity will be high on the list, she said.

The cabinet paper under consultation is lead by the Minister of Immigration and for Workplace Relations, Iain Lees-Galloway.

The findings were upsetting, an E Tū spokesperson Ron Angel said.

"For the first time, there is research which shows migrant workers who are Filipino being underpaid because they are Filipino and for no other reason," he said.

"When I was reading this, it nearly brought me to tears. The angst they were going through, and the suffering on a daily basis, being away from their families and what got me was, here we were welcoming these people into New Zealand to help rebuild Canterbury and we didn't look after them.

"In fact, we made life terrible for them and I feel ashamed."

Mr Angel said Immigration NZ must start caring for the workers it brought into the country and the government must address pay disparity.

The report made a number of recommendations, including more thorough data collection of migrant pay scales with comparisons between migrant and New Zealand workers, and a government strategy to address low pay for migrants.

It also recommended the government funds research into migrant experiences with visas and immigration, communicates with future migrants about costs of residency and family re-unification and creates a strategy for affordable housing.