Workers' rights key for rebuild

Last updated 16:18 06/01/2014

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Christchurch needs to be vigilant against the exploitation of migrant workers as the region's rebuild ramps up, a workers' union says. 

First Union southern secretary Paul Watson said there had already been examples of Filipino workers being exploited while working on the city's earthquake rebuild and the problem would only get worse unless more was done to protect migrants.

"It's indicitive of an increasing problem we're going to have in 2014 unless the MBIE [Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment] gets more resources ... to be able to monitor and enforce breaches of migrant labour," he said.

Filipino workers made up about half of all migrants working on Canterbury's rebuild.

Watson said migrant workers were often reluctant to complain about unfair working conditions or payment issues because they feared losing their jobs and being sent home. 

First Union was currently undertaking a personal grievance against one company after it failed to pay a group of about 15 Filipino workers for six to 11 weeks of work.

"[The] case at the moment involves a Filipino migrant worker who did complain about exploitation, then was dismissed ... for wanting to be paid," Watson said.

"I know this woman has worked very hard ... but she's just been treated appallingly."

The case would go to mediation soon, Watson said. 

In another case, a subcontractor forced workers to work for free on Saturdays. The case had since been resolved and another union was working with the parent company involved, Watson said. 

Unions had been encouraged by the Immigration Amendment Bill introduced to Parliament in October, which could impose a jail sentence of up to seven years, and fines of up to $100,000, on rogue employers.

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse said at the time that migrants faced problems including being paid below the minimum wage, being forced to work extra hours without pay, or having their passports withheld.

Watson said the changes would put "far more teeth" in the legislation and were a positive step, but migrant workers still needed to feel comfortable putting their hands up for help.

"We've had examples of workers literally being threatened of going back home. Their families back home are heavily reliant on money being extrapolated back home ... so there's a lot of pressure on them."

He wanted to see the Government invest more resources into migrant support, including more checks on employers by labour inspectors and more extensive orientation programmes for workers new to New Zealand to ensure they understood their employment rights.

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"If we're not vigilant in stamping out exploitation, Canterbury will get a very poor reputation," Watson said. 

"We all need to be aware if we hear of any exploitation of migrant workers. We shouldn't sweep it under the rug."

- The Press

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