Give temporary migrant workers a fairer deal, academic says

Temporary migrant workers may ease labour shortgages, but it means New Zealand is keeping families apart.
CHRIS MCKEEN/FAIRAX NZ

Temporary migrant workers may ease labour shortgages, but it means New Zealand is keeping families apart.

People working on temporary work visas have become an indispensable part of our economy – helping rebuild Christchurch, staffing rest homes, milking cows and driving trucks.

But the rise of the temporary worker has created a class of people ripe for exploitation, and one academic believes it's time to give them a fairer deal.

Francis Collins from the University of Auckland says the number of temporary workers has spiked from 37,190 in the year to the end of June 2010 to 192,688 in the year to the end of 2016.

It's created an unprecedented population of temporary workers who find themselves mired in a complex bureaucracy, with limited rights to choose an employer, and an inability to plan for the future for either themselves or their families.

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Collins' calls for change follow a report last year by researcher Christina Stringer, which revealed widespread migrant worker exploitation in New Zealand.

Francis Collins, an expert on immigration policy from the University of Auckland.
SUPPLIED

Francis Collins, an expert on immigration policy from the University of Auckland.

The rise of the temporary worker began in 1999, when the emphasis of the immigration policy shifted to have a greater focus on bringing in temporary workers as opposed to permanent residents.

"Hosting large temporary worker populations without permanent rights of residence makes it possible for the government and business to address flexibility in the labour market and to respond to fluctuation and shortages when they appear in particular sectors," Collins says in BWB Text's Fair Borders, which goes on sale on Monday.

The shift was "politically acceptable to those in society who are concerned about increasing immigrant populations", he says, and allows government to generate additional taxes and productivity while not increasing spending on social welfare, education and health for temporary migrants and their families.

Edwin Balatbat is a Filipino migrant worker and has just won a case against an immigration adviser who exploited him, ...
DAVID WALKER/FAIRFAX NZ

Edwin Balatbat is a Filipino migrant worker and has just won a case against an immigration adviser who exploited him, and other workers, through the immigration application process.

But Collins, who has been studying the lives of temporary workers, is calling for a fairer deal, which he believes will benefit us all.

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"The conditions on many work visas would not be tolerated by New Zealanders and we should ask why we consider them acceptable to apply to others. Why do we want to encourage situations where individuals are dependent on their employers or are subject to the whims of changing immigration policies and complex bureaucratic procedures?"

Collins does not believe ordinary people understand what temporary workers face, especially the "bureaucratisation" of temporary workers' lives.

He's been interviewing temporary workers for his research, and has found people isolated from family, trapped into working for a single, sometimes exploitative employer, having to reapply for work visas every year, dependent on expensive immigration "consultants" and having no certainty about the future.

"Even without a radical overhaul of the immigration system there are ways to improve this situation," Collins says.

"An effective response to the dependency of workers on their employers would be to remove the employer specification from their visas so that they could work in a particular occupation, and potentially in a particular region, but for any employer. This would still allow Immigration New Zealand to issue work visas in areas of shortage but would allow workers to easily leave workplaces that were treating them unfairly, a freedom that should be a basic labour right and that would improve conditions and wages for everyone."

That was done in Christchurch to help the city's rebuild, he says, and anecdotal evidence suggests it reduced exploitation and abuse.

He's also calling for a clearer pathway to residency for temporary workers, perhaps through workers earning points towards residency.

He'd also like to see an end to one-year work visas, though the government is proposing to introduce some even shorter term ones to manage seasonal worker shortages.

"While these propositions would be beneficial for migrants themselves, I would argue that they have significant value for New Zealand society too. Rather than allowing migration to become part of the increasing 'flexibilisation' of the labour market, which affects everyone, we could see migrants as valuable workers who have a place here, now and in the future."

 - Stuff

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