18 Oct 2022

Most migrant exploitation complaints uninvestigated over past year

1:44 pm on 18 October 2022
Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment

OIA data from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment showed the number of investigations related to employment breaches had been steadily declining since 2017. File photo Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Only 10 percent of migrant exploitation complaints received by the Labour Inspectorate in the past year were investigated, new data shows.

Data from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) showed it received 1018 reports relating to allegations of migrant exploitation in the 2021/2022 financial year.

Associate Minister of Workplace Relations and Safety Priyanca Radhakrishnan said there has been a 450 percent increase in reports of exploitation since new measures were implemented by the government last year - including an 0800 helpline and a web form to make it easier to report migrant worker exploitation.

As of end of August, 28 investigations had been complete, while 80 were still ongoing.

Meanwhile, enforcement action has only been taken in 10 investigations where breaches were found and none have reached a hearing.

MBIE said it was due to the wait time for the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) or the Employment Court.

Labour Inspectorate national manager Stu Lumsden blamed the impact of the pandemic and the redeployment of staff to the Covid-19 response - including dealing with wage subsidy complaints.

OIA data from MBIE showed the number of investigations related to employment breaches had been steadily declining since 2017.

Over the past five years, the number of investigations have fallen by almost 70 percent.

Workers complaining being turned away, or face delays

One migrant worker, who did not want to be named due to legal concerns, said he was owed about $10,000 in unpaid wages from work done in 2020.

He had complained to the labour inspectorate, but said he was turned away after they said the employer showed evidence of him being a contractor.

The worker said his work arrangement was a permanent one, and that he had never signed a contractor agreement.

He was disappointed that authorities believed the employer without further investigation, he said.

"It's kind of pointless complaining to the labour department, you are a government department and you should have big powers to solve this issue," he said.

"If every employer says these are just contractors, does that mean you won't do anything about the issues?"

The worker had no option but to engage an employment advocate to fight his case against his former employer in the ERA, which took two years to reach the hearing stage.

A private settlement was eventually reached in July this year, but the worker is still struggling to get his money back due to delayed payments from the employer.

The Labour Inspectorate said the worker failed to provide evidence of his employment agreement or PAYE records, and so they could not progress the case further.

Meanwhile, a group of 30 Filipino dairy workers, who complained last year that their employer charged illegal fees for their visas, are still waiting for an outcome.

First Union helped them lodge the complaints with the Labour Inspectorate in August last year, but only a few of the workers have been contacted.

First Union secretary general Dennis Maga said it was disappointing that most of the group were still waiting to be contacted.

He questioned whether there were enough labour inspectors to do the job.

"The number of labour inspectors is really poor. That's not going to be enough to monitor these exploitation cases," Maga said.

"Time and time again, we've been saying publicly that no matter how good your legislation is, if ever you only have a few individuals who will implement this, then those legislations will be useless."

The Labour Inspectorate said it had contacted three workers from the group, and that an outcome could be expected by the end of this year.

Lack of labour inspectors

Data from MBIE showed there were just 72 labour inspectors across the country in the 2020/2021 financial year.

It was just 19 more than the number of labour inspectors New Zealand had in 2017/2018, falling short of the government's promise in 2017 to double the number of inspectors.

New Zealand currently has about one labour inspector for every 57,000 people of working age.

In a statement, Immigration Minister Michael Wood said 95 labour inspectors were expected to be in place by mid-2023.

Last month, the Worker Protection (Migrant and Other Employees) Bill was introduced to parliament, which could bring in new infringements for offending employers, including infringements for lower level offences, such as refusing to provide employment documentation to authorities within a reasonable timeframe.

Michael Wood

Immigration Minister Michael Wood. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Wood told RNZ at a news briefing they would consider how the inspectorate could be better resourced as they moved forward with the bill.

Migrant advocate Anu Kaloti said the government needed to explain why the promise in 2017 to double the number of inspectors in three years had not happened.

Migrant Workers Association spokesperson Anu Kaloti.

Migrant advocate Anu Kaloti Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

The government needed to be transparent with what it had achieved so far with the $50 million pledged to fight migrant exploitation, Kaloti said.

The lack of resourcing was resulting in exploited workers not getting the justice they deserved, she said.

"The investigations are taking too long, in the meantime, those exploiting employers ... they have a free run, they just operate to the model they always have done, and there's no consequences for them," Kaloti said.

"We've heard stories from migrant workers where employers are telling [them], okay go and report me, nothing's going to happen, the departments won't do anything," she said.

"So employers are right in having that kind of arrogance, because they know that the wheels turn too slow here."

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