25 Aug 2023

Migrant worker advocates alarmed by increasing calls for help

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 25 August 2023

For months, we've heard stories of migrant workers arriving in New Zealand out of pocket and without the jobs they've been promised. The Detail talks to some of the advocates working tirelessly to get justice for those who've been exploited.

A portrait of employment advocate May Moncur in her office. She is holding casefiles.

May Moncur Photo: The Detail/Sharon Brettkelly

For nearly 14 years, May Moncur has been helping migrant workers from China tackle bad treatment from their bosses. Each case is different, but their grievances are similar: poor pay, long hours, bad working conditions.

But this year, something has changed, says Moncur, an employment law advocate.

In her small Auckland office, she shows The Detail a file drawer crammed with cases from the last six months. On her desk are more piles of cardboard files, all with the same words written on them.

"Never worked, never worked, never worked, never worked," she says, flicking through them.

They are the cases of migrant workers who have arrived in New Zealand on Accredited Employer Work Visas, after paying thousands to an agent, thinking they were coming to a good job and a better life.

Instead, many of them have had no work at all, or they get fired after a few days; some have never met their employer, and their agent – who they've paid thousands of dollars to – is just a face on WeChat. 

Moncur and other advocates believe thousands – possibly tens of thousands – of workers from many countries have been duped, and she warns that it is not just an employment issue. 

"I see it as a ticking bomb beyond an employment issue that cannot simply be resolved or addressed within the employment sector. It is a social issue, it is a bigger issue for New Zealand," she says.

Moncur tells The Detail of the death threats and abuse she has received from agents after complaints from workers.

"I'm exposing a sector that generates millions of dollars in a matter of a year," she says.

Mandeep Singh Bela is the president of Union Network of Migrants NZ.

Mandeep Singh Bela is the president of Union Network of Migrants NZ. Photo: RNZ / Blessen Tom

"People who receive financial benefits from such operations, definitely they're not happy," she says.

Mandeep Singh Bela, from Union Network of Migrants, has been helping a group of 40 men crammed into one house. Stories of their terrible work and living conditions have alarmed other would-be migrants, he says.

"Since this news broke, I've been flooded with messages and calls. Even migrants who are planning to enter the country, they've been contacting to see if their employment agreements are genuine."

Bela says dodgy employers have agents offshore who target vulnerable and desperate people.

"For a lot of these migrants they feel that yeah, it's a genuine thing. They don't doubt it because they see that their visa is approved by Immigration New Zealand, that they have a job offer in writing, they feel that everything is legitimate and when they come here is actually the opposite," Bela says.

Immigration lawyer Alastair McClymont explains how some employers are abusing the Accredited Employer Work Visa, which has become the key work visa policy for filling labour shortages in New Zealand.

In their application for accreditation, employers only have to say they're profitable – even though they may only be making $1 in profit.

"What Immigration New Zealand may be seeing is that they have not made a loss," McClymont says. 

"They're then applying for 10 job tokens, for 10 new workers to come in. It's going to cost them $60,000 for each of the workers."

But McClymont says the employer may have pocketed up to $200,000 by selling the job tokens to the agent, who then on-sells them to the would-be migrant worker.

"These people suddenly arrive and the employers don't have the work, or the money, to pay the $600,000 in salaries."

McClymont says those financially insecure employers would have been declined under the old visa system. But he says Immigration New Zealand can't be blamed when it doesn't have enough staff.

"Fundamentally it's a resourcing issue. I am sure Immigration New Zealand is not enjoying seeing these stories being reported in the media and I'm sure that they would like to verify every application they get but they simply don't have the resources."

Earlier this month, the immigration minister ordered a review of the Accredited Employer Work Visa scheme.

At the time, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment said it supported the review.

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