Michael Woodhouse 'happy' with treatment of Chinese rail engineers
Workplace Relations Minister Michael Woodhouse is satisfied that Chinese rail engineers contracted by KiwiRail are probably not subject to New Zealand law.
On April 17 the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment released its investigation into alleged mistreatment of the workers employed by a Chinese company to remove asbestos by locomotives used by state-owned KiwiRail in Lower Hutt.
Last August Labour's Trevor Mallard, the MP for Hutt South, alleged that the workers were earning well below minimum wage, and colleagues were so concerned they were providing them food and hosting them for meals.
The report cleared the Chinese company, CNR Dalian Locomotive, of any wrongdoing, but the ministry admitted that both the employees and employer had blocked its attempts to gain wage records.
"[I]t is more than likely New Zealand employment law does not apply to these workers as they are based in China and here only temporarily for work," the ministry said.
On Tuesday, Woodhouse confirmed that he had received legal advice that suggested that the best MBIE could say was that the workers were probably not subject to New Zealand law. He said he had no plans to seek a definitive answer on the matter.
"We have a number of workers who are employed by overseas firms, who work for a short period of time in New Zealand, in a number of industries, airline pilots, flight stewards, people like that. We don't expect them to be employed by New Zealand organisations or subject for the duration to New Zealand employment law," he said.
"The question is for how long should that apply; that's only something that one can test in the courts."
Woodhouse said he was "very happy with the circumstances under which they were asked to do the work in New Zealand" and that most of the allegations made by Mallard and others had been disproved.
Mallard said the situation may need to be tested in court but he believed MBIE's advice was wrong.
"The idea that New Zealand's law on minimum wages doesn't apply in New Zealand just because people signed a contract offshore would totally undermine our minimum wage legislation," Mallard said. If that were the case it could undermine health and safety standards too, he said.
"It's certainly our view that that advice [from MBIE] is wrong and it will almost certainly end up needing to be a test case that proves it if the Government's not prepared to enforce the law."