Chinese rail workers 'exploited'

MICHAEL FORBES
Last updated 05:00 14/08/2014

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Chinese workers hired to repair KiwiRail's asbestos-riddled locomotives are being paid as little as $3 an hour, Labour MP Trevor Mallard has claimed.

The Hutt South MP has written to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment calling for labour inspectors to investigate the alleged exploitation at the Hutt Railway workshops.

"My understanding is that a number of Chinese railway engineers dealing with the asbestos issue are being paid well below the minimum wage," he said.

"The figure quoted to me was $3 per hour but I have also heard US$40 [NZ$47] per day. That is exploitation and it is illegal."

He was supported last night by Rail and Maritime Transport Workers Union secretary Wayne Butson, who said the 17 workers were living in cramped conditions, and described their treatment as an international disgrace.

"It's a year-long project for them. The Chinese workers simply cannot afford to live in New Zealand. They are living in cramped conditions in Lower Hutt and getting paid $3 per hour."

KiwiRail emphasised last night that the workers were employed by Chinese manufacturer CNR, and that all contractual arrangements during their time in New Zealand were being made by CNR.

"Nevertheless, KiwiRail takes the welfare of its staff, and visiting contractors such as these people, seriously," general manager freight Iain Hill said. It was investigating their wage arrangements with CNR, and would work with MBIE as necessary.

Mallard said other workers concerned for the Chinese engineers had been bringing food to work for them and hosting them for meals in the evening.

Hill said KiwiRail provided a cooked lunch for them every working day. "The workers work the same hours as KiwiRail staff at the Hutt workshops - they start at 7.30, have 45-60 minutes for lunch and finish around 3.30 to 4pm."

KiwiRail pulled 40 Chinese DL locomotives from service on February 28 after asbestos was discovered in paint samples. They are expected to be back in service by November at the latest after engine bay doors containing asbestos have been replaced.

In a letter to MBIE chief executive David Smol, Mallard said nothing could be proved "at this stage", but called for a full review of timesheets and wage records.

He told The Dominion Post: "The Government has said it was cracking down on migrant abuse in Christchurch, as the rebuild gears up. It now needs to ensure similar exploitation is not going on in its own backyard."

An MBIE spokesperson said its labour inspectorate was making inquiries, including looking at whether there had been any breaches of minimum employment standards.

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"MBIE takes the exploitation of workers seriously and is working proactively with other agencies to crack down on it."

- The Dominion Post

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