Q+A: Jessica Mutch interviews Michael Woodhouse
Sunday 23 June, 2013
Jessica Mutch interviews Michael Woodhouse
Immigration Minister announces tougher penalties for bosses who exploit migrant labour
The Government is cracking down on employers who exploit migrant workers, with the threat of deportation for some employers who are themselves immigrants. It’s also aiming to make it easier for victims to report exploitation without penalty.
Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse said people working here illegally are already protected.
“At the moment, an employer can be convicted and sent to jail for up to seven years and fined $100,000 for exploiting an illegal migrant worker,” Mr Woodhouse told TVNZ’s Q+A programme today.
“What I’m going to do is introduce a bill in a month or so which will extend that to legal migrant workers as well, because most employers don’t really distinguish between who they’re discriminating against.”
Employers who exploit migrant workers could face deportation themselves.
“Many of those have the privilege of being recent immigrants to New Zealand, and they are abusing that privilege by exploiting workers, often from their own home country,” Mr Woodhouse said.
“So what I’m going to be telling those employers – and the law will support this – is that if they are convicted of those sorts of offences, they themselves – the employers – could be liable for deportation.”
The Minister says social media will play a role in communication the changes to migrant workers, changes he hopes will see them reporting exploitation without fear of punishment.
“I will be looking forward to the time when there are examples within the migrant community of people who have spoken up and have not been punished for doing so.”
Mr Woodhouse also said foreign buyers were not necessarily driving up house prices in places like Auckland. Net migration has been pretty much stable, with arrrivals and departures more or less balancing each other, and non-New Zealand buyers matched by foreign sellers.
“So I’m not sure it’s true to say immigration at the moment is driving up the price of houses,” he said.
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Q + A – 23 June, 2013
Interviewed by JESSICA MUTCH
JESSICA Michael Woodhouse, thank you very much for your time this morning. What I want to start off by asking you – you’re going to give us an announcement basically around employers of migrant workers. Why do we need these harsher penalties?
MICHAEL Well, we already have quite harsh penalties for employers who exploit unlawful migrants. One of the problems we’ve found is that those who are unlawful – they may be working outside the terms of their visa – are very reluctant to speak up, so as a consequence, that law probably hasn’t been as effective as it could be. So what I’ve instructed immigration officials to do is turn their attention to the employers rather than the employees. What that’ll mean for the employees is that they will be able to speak up, confident that they won't be punished, perhaps by deportation or other sanctions.
JESSICA Let’s talk about some of those sanctions. What are the rules at the moment, and what are the harsher penalties that you want?
MICHAEL Well, at the moment, an employer can be convicted and sent to jail for up to seven years and fined $100,000 for exploiting an illegal migrant worker. What I’m going to do is introduce a bill in a month or so which will extend that to legal migrant workers as well, because most employers don’t really distinguish between who they’re discriminating against.
JESSICA Let’s talk about those fines at the moment. I mean, it seems like a little bit of a no-brainer. Why has it taken you so long to do this?
MICHAEL Well, it was in the 1987 act, and when the act was rewritten around 2007, it was though that a more principles-based approach would work. I don’t think it has worked. We have had a handful of charges laid, but I think we’re not seeing the extent of the problem, particularly here in Auckland.
JESSICA How have you missed it for so long?
MICHAEL Well, I think it’s really important firstly that people feel confident that they can speak up without fear of sanction themselves, and many of these migrants come from countries where their perception of authority is quite different from here in New Zealand. So it’s going to be important that we give them the encouragement that they can safely and confidently speak up against those employers.
JESSICA How do you do that, though? How do you encourage them to speak up? Because as you say, there are sometimes some cultural differences.
MICHAEL Well, I’ve already tested these ideas with some of the migrant communities. They’re very supportive.
JESSICA Can you tell us about some of those ideas?
MICHAEL Yes, well, it’s about communication and it’s about social media. I think there's a lot of misinformation that can come out through social media, so it’s about making sure that we can get to those workers and cut across the things that sometimes employers are telling them, which are simply not true, about what would happen if they did speak up.
JESSICA Is that a little bit naïve, though, to say, “Look, we’re the government. We’ll help you through this.” Is that a bit simplistic?
MICHAEL Well, I think actions are going to speak louder than words at the end of the day, so I will be looking forward to the time when there are examples within the migrant community of people who have spoken up and have not been punished for doing so. And remember that the target of this is the employers. Now, many of those have the privilege of being recent immigrants to New Zealand, and they are abusing that privilege by exploiting workers, often from their own home country. So what I’m going to be telling those employers – and the law will support this – is that if they are convicted of those sorts of offences, they themselves – the employers – could be liable for deportation.
JESSICA So how do you communicate that? You talked about social media. How do you actually communicate directly with those people?
MICHAEL Well, it’s going to be quite ubiquitous. It’s going to need to be through a number of media, through those migrant support communities, because remember they often have very good networks. It will be through the universities and the pastoral care that’s being provided to students who have work rights here, working-holiday scheme makers at places like Rotorua and Queenstown. I think it’s going to be really important that we get to those places who have a high level of workers who could be subject to exploitation.
JESSICA Let’s talk about a recent example that we’ve seen in the news this week where employers were paying people $4 an hour for work here in New Zealand, and they were basically fined, each individual company, $20,000. Is that too soft, in your opinion?
MICHAEL Well, it could well be. And the work that I’ve been doing is alongside of body of work that the Minister of Labour, Simon Bridges, is also doing in terms of reviewing penalties for breaches of, say, the Minimum Wage Act, the Employment Relations Act and so on. So that work is on-going. What Simon and I have asked is that there is a joined-up approach, and it’s one of the benefits, I think, of getting the Labour Inspector and Immigration New Zealand together under the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
JESSICA So let’s just talk about this case. So, $20,000 – would you see that with these new law changes that that would be harsher – more like that $100,000 that you were talking about?
MICHAEL Quite possibly. I wouldn’t want to pre-empt what Minister Bridges is going to do in those acts.
JESSICA But that’s the kind of change you're talking about?
MICHAEL But that is the sort of change. Now, if those thresholds are reached, then it is possible that the sorts of punishments that apply under the Employment Relations Act could result in deportation of recent migrants who are employers if they offend against New Zealanders.
JESSICA And why are those changes to the deportation rules—? Why are they necessary?
MICHAEL Well, I think it’s very important to send a signal that being in New Zealand is a privilege and that there's a rule of law in this country that needs to be obeyed. Now, there are some countries where law is perhaps not quite as closely followed—
JESSICA Let’s just talk specifically about New Zealand, though, and these deportation laws. Because at the moment, basically once you’ve been here for 10 years, you're pretty much safe. Do you think we need to tighten these up a bit?
MICHAEL Well, I’ve had a look at that as part of the amendments that I’m going to be introducing next month. On balance, I’ve decided that the punishment regime and the deportation regime is adequate. And remember that people can be liable for deportation for things like a drink-driving conviction. Now, as Associate Transport Minister, I wouldn’t want to trivialise a drink-driving conviction, and that’s certainly what the Immigration Act does right now.
JESSICA Do you think that New Zealand needs to be careful that we don’t get a bad reputation overseas for being poor employers?
MICHAEL Yes, it is important, and I was very pleased—
JESSICA Do you think there's a risk that that’s happening at the moment?
MICHAEL Well, I was going to say the US State Department has come out with its annual Trafficking of Persons report this week. We have retained our tier-one status, which means we are amongst the best nations in the world for our management of trafficking. There were some criticisms last year around things like foreign charter vessels, migrant exploitation and the fact we saw that trafficking was more of a transnational issue rather than a domestic issue. Judith Collins is working on that last issue, and there’ll be some changes made to the Crimes Act.
JESSICA Right. We—
MICHAEL And Simon and I are working on a lined-up policy for both immigration law and employment law.
JESSICA Since you're talking more broadly, let’s broaden it out.
JESSICA Basically, what's happening now is that there are a lot of migrants coming to New Zealand, and there's some criticism that they’re buying up residential houses in the Auckland market in particular. Do you see this as a problem?
MICHAEL Well, it’s really important, I think, that people don’t judge what's going on by how many Asian faces there are at the local auctions.
JESSICA But not just Asian faces, though – immigrants in general.
MICHAEL Well, that is true. Remember that our net migration over the last three or four years has been pretty stable. That is, the number of people coming in has more or less matched the number of people leaving. So we know we’ve got a supply-side issue in terms of housing problems, and that’s why we’ve put in place changes to the Resource Management Act, the Local Government Act and the issues around special housing.
JESSICA Is this just a by-product of immigration, though?
MICHAEL Well, I wouldn’t accept that. I mean, we need skills, and we are a migrant nation. We have always relied on immigration as part of our policy—
JESSICA But talking specifically about housing, though.
MICHAEL Well, they need somewhere to live. Now, a recent BNZ survey showed there were about 9% only of houses that were owned by people who were not here in New Zealand. Now, half of those intended to come to New Zealand, and of the balance, there was about as many non-New Zealand residents selling houses as there were buying them. So I’m not sure it’s true to say immigration at the moment is driving up the price of houses.
JESSICA If you look at other examples – basically, in Hong Kong they’ve got a 15% tax for people buying residential houses. Is that anything you’d look at here, or would that put off immigrants in your opinion?
MICHAEL Well, I don’t think it’s something I should comment on. That would be something the Minister of Housing would need to look at.
JESSICA As Minister of Immigration, though.
MICHAEL Well, as Minister of Immigration, it could be a barrier to skilled migrants seeing New Zealand as an attractive destination. I would also add that I’m not sure that it’s actually had the effect of actually dampening the house prices in Hong Kong.
JESSICA And that’s one of the things, as well, that you’ve got to look at. You talked about 9% there owned by immigrants. That would make quite a big difference to the housing market in Auckland.
MICHAEL That’s 9% owned by people who are not currently New Zealanders and are not in New Zealand at the time. So we’ve always got a churn of people coming and going. So the real number is probably closer to 4% or 4½%. And as I say, they’re being sold at the same rate that they’re being purchased by people who are not New Zealanders and not in New Zealand.
JESSICA Well, that’s a nice place to leave it. Thank you very much for your time this morning, Michael Woodhouse.
MICHAEL Thanks, Jess.