A young migrant woman’s experience of work in NZ
A young migrant woman’s experience of work in NZ
by Wei Sun
December 13, 2013
Migrant workers in struggle: Auckland taxi drivers on hunger strike.
After the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi (The Treaty of Waitangi) in 1840 anyone could immigrate to New Zealand, while most settlers in the nineteenth century came from the UK, substantial numbers of Chinese labours immigrated to work on the goldfields of Otago. These migrants faced discrimination from white migrants but were not discriminated against in law until 1881 when a ‘poll tax’ was introduced for Chinese entering New Zealand.
The 1920 Immigration Restriction Act allowed the Minister of Customs to exclude any people who were ‘unsuitable’. While not officially adopting the ‘White New Zealand’ immigration policy, the law was used in practice to restrict the immigration of Asian people, especially Chinese. The idea of a ‘White New Zealand’ was supported by the early Labour as well as the Liberal and Reform parties (forerunners of National, which formed when they merged).
While Asian students began coming to New Zealand to study under the Colombo Plan in the 1950s, some choosing to stay after completing study, the 1920 law was used to restrict Asian immigration throughout most of the twentieth century. From 1974 criteria for entry to New Zealand gradually changed from race or nationality to merits and skills, but it wasn’t until the 1987 Immigration Act that legal discrimination against some races and nationalities was ended.
Today migrant workers are still struggling for their equal rights. Burger King has always remained to be the fast food company which pays the lowest wages. Even some of those who have worked there for over ten years are still struggling on minimum wage. One of the biggest issues presented is the exploitation and bullying of migrant workers.
Many employers threaten their migrant workers by saying they might withdraw the workers’ work visa. Thus many migrants end up working under unreasonable working conditions and extremely low wages. While many unions still maintain a hostile attitude towards immigrants, Unite has made an impact organising in migrant workers in fast food, an industry which employs a large number of international students.
As an international student myself, I am currently holding a student visa and I am allowed to work up to 20 hours a week except for summer and winter holidays. In 2011, which was my first year in New Zealand, I had three jobs at different Chinese restaurants in Christchurch. Due to my lack of knowledge of New Zealand’s employment law and a strong English language barrier, I believed that it is ‘normal’ and ‘reasonable’ to work on nine dollars an hour in the first three-month trial period. At all of these restaurants I was getting paid cash.
I was being told off all the time. My bosses pointed at my nose and yelled at me almost every time I was on my shift, mostly because I was not moving fast enough or smiling enough to the customers. I had to cover all the ‘losses’ made by myself due to careless working. The worst times were when the till was fifty dollars short, or when customers ran away without paying the bills.
The first place I worked at was called Zest Noodle House. My bosses would tell me to leave when there were not enough customers so they could just work by themselves. Sometimes after a long commute to work they told me to leave after one and half or two hours because it was not ‘busy enough’.
I signed the date, my name, starting time and finishing time of the day on a notebook they had for all the staff, and they paid every one of us cash on our last shift of the week. Unsurprisingly, the cash was always short, sometimes 50 cents, sometimes a few dollars.
I ended up quitting the job, like all the other previous staff had. I never got time and a half pay on public holidays, or sick pay. As I heard from previous co-workers and Chinese friends, this sort of thing is a common experience, and a common response; leaving instead of reporting the employers or taking other action. It is a sad but ‘normal’ thing that we are all shy, scared, or confused and never tell anyone else or get help.
Now it has been over two years since I was employed by those Chinese restaurants’ owners, and I do regret not standing up for myself and the co-workers. Of course horrible things as such do not just happen to us Chinese girls. One of my Thai friends told me the situation is exactly the same at the restaurant she was working at. She was threatened that her visa would be withdrawn if she refused to get paid ten dollars per hour cash.
More recently I was employed at a dairy shop in south west Christchurch. I was extremely happy when they decided to hire me, because they agreed to pay me proper minimum wage and tax to the government rather than cash ‘under the table’, but I left after one year due to sexual harassment over the last two months at the dairy shop.
One shift I was doing the ‘end of the day settlement’ and closing the shop, my boss threw 50-dollar note at my face, ‘he said the camera was off and no one would ever know, plus I needed cash anyway’. I said there is no way I am going to do that, and then quit the job not long after.
I had a long talk with him. I said “Look, you’ve got a lovely wife and a 23-year-old daughter. If you stop doing this, I will not report you, because your wife (the other boss of mine) is the nicest boss I have ever had. But you have to promise to stop doing this, otherwise I really will go report you” He agreed.
A little over six months since I quit the job at the dairy, a young woman who works at a neighbouring shop (owned by the same people as the dairy shop) contacted me and told me that the boss attempted to harass another Chinese girl who works there, who then quit.
This time I will not let him go. We have agreed that the florist girl, the girl from the dairy, and I are going to report this boss together.
At the beginning of last year, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies pointed out that Kiwi xenophobia has been growing. I have experienced Xenophobia myself. Some employers only seek for similar values and beliefs, and avoid ‘the others’.
Maintaining a work visa is of upmost importance to many migrant workers. To some of us, the most difficult condition we face is that we could be arrested and deported for militant action. But since we have the most to lose from militant action, sometimes we do know a lot about unionism and politics.
A Japanese friend of mine also told me that his previous boss promised to get him a work visa for his permanent residency if he agreed to work under certain wage and conditions. He worked for a year, but the work visa or residency never happened.
Migrant workers are part of the working class too. Regardless of our ethnicity, we do work and we contribute to New Zealand society. We bring our experiences from our home countries, and help the New Zealand working class to be more cosmopolitan and international. It is important to defend all workers against attacks, including the controls put on migrant workers that help maintain their oppression and exploitation. Capitalism exploits the global working class as a whole, therefore, the more we unite workers together, not divide workers along lines of race or nationality, the stronger we get, and the better we can fight against the system itself.