Migrant exploitation by unscrupulous employers
The leaders of New Zealand must keep abreast of important issues as they arise, and must respond appropriately. One such response was the enactment of legislation aimed at combating migrant exploitation, with punitive measures such as up to 10 years imprisonment, $100,000 fine, revocation of residence visas and deportation.
No doubt this attempts to send a strong message, but the question is, “How effective is this legislation in stopping migrant exploitation?”
The annual Diversity Forum organised by the Human Rights Commission in Christchurch on August 24, 2014 heard that migrant workers face the risk of working under inhuman and slave-like conditions.
Migrants involved in the Canterbury rebuild are particularly vulnerable.
Although we do not know if this menace is widespread, anecdotal evidence shows that it is rampant in the hospitality sector. Students with work visas are a particular target of migrant exploitation as they are desperate for a job which will help them gain a residence visa.
It is so common that some students think that it is the norm.
It is very unfortunate that such practices have become part of our employment scene. This is certainly not a part of the New Zealand psyche.
This practice creates an unhealthy and unwarranted competitive advantage, because these rogue employers can pay far less than the minimum wage, reducing overheads and maximising profits.
Exploiting one’s own people who are most vulnerable is unforgiveable.
Why the perpetrators’ moral compasses are not working is an inquiry for another day.
A case is currently before the courts and we await the verdict.
Deepak (not his real name) has just finished his qualification. Like most others, he came here in search of a better life. He was granted a job search visa and was looking for employment. Meanwhile he went to India to visit his family. While he was there, he was told that Mr M, a man in Auckland might be able to give him a job.
Deepak flew back to New Zealand and contacted Mr M, who gave him the job of managing a restaurant and provided him food and accommodation. Weeks rolled by but there was no mention of a salary or paper work that would enable him to gain permanent residence.
Eventually Mr M said that he would support Deepak’s application for residence, but there was a fee of NZ$20,000 (with guaranteed refund if the application for residence visa failed).
Deepak’s parents in India agreed to pay the fee and took out loans, and started repaying in instalments with much difficulty.
Mr M recommended Deepak to an Immigration Adviser who assisted him with the two-stage Skilled Migrant residence process.
Apparently, Mr M had a deal with the Immigration Adviser. Deepak would be paid normal wages but was asked to pay back all but $70-$100 per week by withdrawing cash from various ATMS and at liquor stores.
The residence application eventually failed as the restaurant was not financially viable.
Deepak was desperate. He asked Mr M to refund the money paid but was fired from his job. With nowhere to go, Deepak spiralled into depression. With no one to guide him in this country, he had one hope: to speak with his family in India for guidance. Out of desperation, he used someone’s credit card to top up his mobile phone.
The Compliance Team at Immigration New Zealand (INZ) started the process for Deepak’s deportation. He was terrified and did not know who he could trust to help him. One of his co-workers brought him to me in Wellington on a Saturday morning.
It was hard to fathom how he had been duped.
Parvinder is an example of the desperate circumstances under which many international students and migrant workers live in this country.
Our firm has been battling this case for a year now on three fronts – Labour Inspectorate, Immigration Advisers Authority and Compliance Operations.
The challenges we have to overcome are: jurisdiction (the transfer of funds took place in India, not New Zealand), providing evidence that supports the claim of migrant exploitation (the exploiters knew how to cover their tracks), and finally providing a suitable outcome for Deepak when the legislation provides no recourse.
While the technical legal challenges continue, it makes me wonder whether the legislation goes far enough to protect such people.
Will M be held accountable?
Is Deepak a victim rather than a culprit?
Does our immigration policy encourage employers to exploit innocent victims?
I hope that the exploiters will be held to account sooner than later.