8 Sep 2016

Underpaid, exploited, abused: life for migrant workers in NZ

11:23 am on 8 September 2016

Justice is hard to reach for exploited migrant workers, says new report.

“I had no money at that time. Those were the worst years for me.”

“I had no money at that time. Those were the worst years for me.” Photo: 123rf

Stories of migrant workers being exploited have been revealed in a new report, shedding light on new cases where employees are paid below minimum wage, overworked and not afforded their basic rights.

Cathy Bi, who wrote the report for Catholic advocacy and aid agency Caritas Aotearoa, says the government needed to be more proactive in monitoring employers and could not rely on migrants' reporting incidents themselves.

"There is a gap for vulnerable migrant workers to cross in order to access justice. We can't necessarily expect migrant workers to do this alone, to report cases. And for this to be the only mechanism of accountability over employers," she told RNZ.

Fourteen people were interviewed for the report, including migrant workers, unions and lawyers, between April and June this year.

The story that struck with Bi the most was of a girl who worked a shift at a restaurant, but was not paid because her employer told her it was only a trial.

Restaurant staff abuse has attracted attention recently after two managers of the Indian restaurant chain Masala were sentenced to home detention for exploiting staff at restaurants across Auckland in October.

Hardeep Singh, 24, earlier this year spoke out about abuse working in an Auckland restaurant, and said it left him he feeling depressed and suicidal.

He was paid just $7 an hour cash and the owners got away with paying him so little by lying to IRD, he told The Wireless.

Although he was working at least 40 hours each week, his employer would say he was only working 20 for $16 an hour.

“I felt like I would go back to India or I would do a suicide because I was in so much depression,” he said.   

“I had no money at that time. Those were the worst years for me.”

Hardeep says he didn’t want to speak out for fear of losing the little money he was making, or losing his student visa since he was working over the allowed threshold.

Green Party MP Denise Roche said the problem was getting worse as more people moved to New Zealand for work.

"When we don't have enough oversight from our government agencies, and when we don't have the backup of our trade unions because they have been hamstrung by changes in the law, that this government has forced through - it means we set migrants up to be exploited by unscrupulous employers," she said.

There was a reason New Zealand workers often turned down jobs that migrants picked up, said Roche.

"And I get really concerned about allegations from the Prime Minister, for example, that we need more migrants because New Zealanders won't take these jobs.

She said what she had seen was in fact migrant workers being exploited - and New Zealand workers refusing to put up with that.

A version of this story by Mei Heron first appeared on RNZ.co.nz