Workers treated like 'modern slaves'

11 September 2017
Christina Stringer 72dpi
Dr Christina Stringer, University of Auckland Business School

Research shows need for new legislation to protect against worker exploitation.

The migrant worker, upset at poor working conditions in his New Zealand employment, mentioned it to his agent in his home country.

Word got back to his employer. Physical and psychological abuse followed.

Another worker in a different venue was approached by his boss's New Zealand rival, promising to help him gain permanent residency in New Zealand if he shifted camps. The worker did - but when the job was complete, the new boss said: "Sorry, there's no job here for you."

Just two examples why University of Auckland Business School researcher Dr Christina Stringer is keen to see New Zealand prevent worker exploitation, as well as adopt a Modern Slavery Act.

Her research, culminating late last year in a report entitled Worker exploitation in New Zealand: a troubling landscape, uncovered a wide range of migrant worker abuse, including workers going unpaid, denied toilet breaks, confiscated passports and threats and abuse by Kiwi bosses.

Migrant workers who had fallen victim to exploitation and human trafficking in New Zealand relayed disturbing accounts to Stringer in a two-year, 105-person-interview study*.

They claimed their movements were restricted and they'd been forced to work up to 18 hours a day, living in overcrowded, sub-standard accommodation. Some said New Zealand authorities had refused to listen to pleas for help.

Stringer says her research showed the two worst industries for worker exploitation were horticulture and hospitality: "In horticulture, people are routinely paid less than the minimum wage and they agree just to get a job - some paid as little as $5 an hour; some employers threaten to report them to Immigration NZ if they complain.

"In hospitality, workers are often paid for far fewer hours than they work - like working 90-hour weeks, as one individual did, but being paid for 45; some work for as little as $4 an hour."

Stringer says intimidation is real, even affecting New Zealand workers: "I had New Zealand residents telling me what they were seeing - but most were too scared to speak up."

Stringer, an associate professor in International Business, is also an advocate for New Zealand's adoption of a Modern Slavery Act, currently being considered in Australia.

Such legislation, she says, not only covers workers' rights and guards against human trafficking, it imposes a new level of responsibility on businesses to ensure they are not, knowingly or unknowingly, playing a role in such exploitation.

In Australia recently, convenience store franchise chain 7-Eleven recently compensated over 2800 workers for wage theft in excess of A$110 million ($119m). Some Domino Pizza franchisees in Australia have also faced accusations of wage theft while migrant workers in agriculture have also allegedly been exploited, with one worker receiving as little as A$150 for six months' work.

Stringer says such acts, like the UK's, require companies to take responsibility for their supply chains: "It means companies can't say, 'it isn't us; we cannot control what is happening in other countries' if we are talking about products that come from a sweat shop in Asia, for example.

"There's evidence the UK act is already changing corporate behaviour; companies with a turnover of £36m ($64m) or more are required to disclose annually what they are doing to ensure transparency in their supply chains - essentially requiring them to identify any modern slavery."

That is already applying to New Zealand firms doing business in the UK. Air New Zealand, she says, has already had to make that disclosure statement to ensure it can do business in the UK.

However, a similar act, if introduced here, may only apply to big businesses - and New Zealand may need further action: "What about workers being exploited, for example, by smaller operators and where there is not a tangible product or service entering a large corporate supply chain?

"Those workers fall outside a Modern Slavery Act," says Stringer. "To address ongoing exploitation at this level, we need more research and greater understanding of why some forms of exploitation have become deeply embedded in certain industries.

"The contribution of migrant workers to the New Zealand economy must be valued and their vulnerabilities addressed."

Stringer's research found, as well as the horticulture and hospitality sectors, exploitation was also present in construction - mostly Filipinos hired to help in the Christchurch rebuild who told of entering into debt bondage to pay exorbitant recruitment fees of around $10,000 each.

In the dairy industry, conditions had improved in recent years but migrant dairy workers, mainly from the Philippines and South America, still described abuse, poor working conditions, lack of pay and poor treatment of animals. One farm worker reported having to milk 1,400 cows (with one other person) in the morning and the same in the afternoon; another was required to kill more than 300 bull calves with a hammer.

Most common forms of exploitation:

  • Excessive working hours, sometimes without breaks
  • No pay or severe under-payment
  • No holiday pay
  • No employment contracts
  • Taxes deducted but not paid to Inland Revenue
  • Degrading treatment: being sworn at or insulted, denied bathroom breaks, verbal or physical abuse and threatened abuse, restriction of movement
  • Cash-for-residency schemes, workers paid cash to their employers, returned to them as "wages".

*Stringer's research was funded by the Human Trafficking Research Coalition, comprising the Prescha Initiative, Stand Against Slavery, Hagar and ECPAT.