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Modern day slavery and human trafficking in New Zealand

14 March 2018

William Wilberforce abolished slavery in the United Kingdom 150 years ago, yet bonded labour, people trafficking and exploitation persist.

With the industrial revolution in England came inhuman working conditions. Workers were often paid by credit note to the company store and then significant deductions were made from their wages for their lodgings and for buying food from the company store.

The English trucking laws and the Wages Protection Act 1983 here trace their origins to those days. It is confronting that in New Zealand, where we pride ourselves on fairness and opportunity, similar practices are still occurring here (albeit on a smaller scale).

Visa requirements can make migrants dependent on their job in New Zealand and they become vulnerable to cutting their own throat if they report illegal practices.

If they complain about unfair employment practices, such as not being paid the minimum wage or holiday pay, the employer's response may be to threaten to dismiss them or notify the Police that they are illegally in New Zealand.

Exploitation can also include charging employees premiums to work and unlawfully deducting wages - frequently migrants are from low and middle class families in India and China, and it is reported they can pay an employer up to $50,000 to work in New Zealand.

The Labour Inspector National Manager said inspectors often encounter people who are working long hours, working less than the minimum wage, and being deprived of other entitlements such as holiday pay. The Minister of Labour, Iain Lees-Galloway, has said that it is clear we have a problem with migrant exploitation in New Zealand and that enforcement agencies have told him that wherever they go looking for migrant exploitation, they find it.

In 2016 the first prosecution for human trafficking was brought against Faroz Ali. He was found guilty of 15 human trafficking charges and 15 charges of aiding and abetting a person to unlawfully enter New Zealand. He pleaded guilty to numerous charges of helping people breach their visa conditions and not paying minimum wage.

The treatment of his victims was appalling. They paid fees of several thousand dollars to obtain visas which did not allow them to work in New Zealand. In one case a worker estimated that they paid up to $8,000 for the opportunity to work in New Zealand and did not receive the correct visa.

The accommodation arrangements were described by the Judge at sentencing as "shamefully poor". Once in New Zealand they were forced to sleep in the lounges and basements. Three married woman and one married man were told they would share a basement with other people. There was no bedding to speak of and only one mattress was available.

They were required to work long hours. One exploited worker was required to work from 6am to 5pm up to seven days a week. It is reported that when the workers challenged how much they were being paid they were threatened with being taken to the Police.

It was found that Ali saved $100,000 from his failure to pay minimum wages and holiday pay.

Since then public attention on these matters has only grown.

The Labour Inspectorate and Immigration New Zealand have been conducting operations to address the problem.

Immigration New Zealand is currently running Operation Spectrum and has been conducting raids on targeted New Zealand companies. As a result of Operation Spectrum, 54 Malaysian nationals were recently deported and a further 36 chose to self-deport in order to avoid apprehension. While no evidence of exploitation was found with respect to these migrants, they were vulnerable to exploitation regardless.

Despite the activity in this area, there is a growing sense that these issues are not being adequately addressed in New Zealand.

The Migrant Workers' Association is calling on Government to change the regime so students and other workers are less vulnerable if they try and raise the alarm. Last week, business leaders and Government officials met in Auckland to discuss how they could collaborate to fight modern day slavery and human trafficking in New Zealand.

More needs to be done and it is perhaps inevitable that we start looking outside of New Zealand to see what initiatives can address the problem. The United Kingdom leads the way with the Modern Slavery Act 2015.

This amongst other things requires directors of companies with a significant turnover to establish supply chain transparency mechanisms for the treatment of workers. The company has to ensure the supply chain does not involve slave labour. Other countries are considering following the English model.

A similar model could also conceivably apply in New Zealand.

Industries prone to exploitation of migrants such as horticulture, dairy, forestry, retail and fishing often have supply chains culminating in a large New Zealand company distributing the produce.

Perhaps greater responsibility for these companies in ensuring that suppliers are not exploiting workers could apply here as it does in the United Kingdom?

Clearly we are dealing with extreme misery and exploitation. The approach taken to date for resolving the problem is that the law is the law and letting it take its course – exploitative employers face the music and migrants in the main are deported where they are in New Zealand illegally.

The Migrant Workers Association have made some useful suggestions and a more compassionate approach would be to create a legal pathway for at least some migrants to remain in New Zealand.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

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