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Greater protections needed for migrant workers

17 July 2014

Greater protections needed for migrant workers

Exploitation of migrant workers in New Zealand is a growing issue and requires a significant investment in strengthening enforcement of minimum employment standards, says Multicultural New Zealand.

We welcome the initiative of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment in producing a discussion document on Playing by the Rules in response to increasing reports of exploitation of migrant workers. Overall we support the Ministry’s proposals to:
• Improve the current sanctions regime to provide a sufficient deterrent against non-compliance
• Change the enforcement approach of the Labour Inspectorate and others to ensure non-compliant employers have a higher chance of being caught
• Provide information and advice to employers and employees to assist compliance, and improve the processes for dealing with alleged breaches.

We note that of the 5,937 issues dealt with by the Labour Inspectorate between July 2012 and December 2013, 1,404 involved migrant workers, and while migrant workers make up only 10 per cent of the working population, they accounted for 24 per cent of issues. We further note that over 50 per cent of these issues arose in only three industry sectors: accommodation and food services; agriculture forestry and fishing; and retail trade. We add that in recent times instances of exploitation of migrant workers have been reported in the Christchurch rebuild and in the agricultural and horticultural sectors.

Sanctions
We support the Ministry’s proposals for increasing the sanctions for failure to meet minimum employment standards: naming and shaming, increasing financial penalties, taking measures to restrict the ability of non-compliant employers to do business, introducing criminal sanctions for the most serious offences and improving the process for enforcing debts. We are particularly concerned at what is described in the document as “phoenixing” whereby companies are deliberately wound up in order to avoid enforcement action. This has also been described to us as the “corporate veil”.

Identifying and investigating breaches
We support the proposals for aligning the requirements for record keeping across employment legislation, requiring employers to keep time records for low-paid salaried and piece-rate workers, broadening the range of information Labour Inspectors can require, and extending the powers of labour inspectors to access information and make binding determinations.

Improving compliance with employment standards
We welcome the recently increased investment in information provision on employment standards to migrant workers in the Canterbury rebuild, and the operational policy changes to assure migrant workers that they will not be disadvantaged by making a complaint against their employer. Such issues have concerned us for some time and have been the subject of recent news reports in Christchurch, Auckland and the Bay of Plenty, and further action may well be required.

We would also emphasise the need for information to be provided in a range of languages, for labour inspectors to be trained in cross-cultural competencies, and for the labour inspectorate to have a diversity of staff representing the ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity of the migrant workforce. We encourage the Ministry to provide financial support and training in employment law to community groups who represent and work with migrants. We support the proposals to expand the role of the Labour Contact Centre to deal with lower level breaches directly, to fast track less serious breaches through a separate system so that small claims can be dealt with quickly and easily, and to only use mediation when it is appropriate because of more complex issues of employment relationships rather than straightforward breaches of employment standards.

We emphasise that a key to greater compliance with employment standards is having sufficient Labour Inspectors to undertake the work. We understand that the ratio of Labour Inspectors to the workforce in New Zealand is much lower than in comparable jurisdictions overseas and there is an urgent need for an increase in the size of the Inspectorate. The recent initiative to boost numbers in Canterbury is an initial acknowledgment that improvements to the enforcement of employment standards for migrant workers cannot be achieved without additional resources.

ENDS

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