Labour Party brings in unpaid overseas students

A security guard keeps media away from a section of the marae where the unpaid fellows were staying.
JASON DORDAY/FAIRFAX NZ

A security guard keeps media away from a section of the marae where the unpaid fellows were staying.

A group of 85 Labour Party interns flew to New Zealand from around the world expecting lectures from Helen Clark and real world campaign experience.

They arrived to a cramped dormitory, no pay, no lectures, and a broken shower.

Are you one of the Labour interns? Contact us at newstips@stuff.co.nz

A section of the brochure distributed to universities.

A section of the brochure distributed to universities.

Labour head office has had to take over the Auckland-run scheme and in some cases help pay for the students to go home.

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Instead they have been working phone banks and living in a cramped dormitory in an Auckland marae, a report in Politik claims.

Helen Clark won't be speaking to the students.

Helen Clark won't be speaking to the students.

The scheme was run by former Labour Auckland head Matt McCarten, who left his job in mid-May.

He took the scheme with him, renaming it "Campaign for Change". While not run out of the Labour Party Auckland office, it was still supported by them.

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse said there were questions to be asked over whether this was a breach of visa conditions.

Former chief of staff Matt McCarten was running the scheme before he left Labour.
ROBERT KITCHIN/FAIRFAX NZ

Former chief of staff Matt McCarten was running the scheme before he left Labour.

"Even if they were on valid visas there are also very important questions to be asked about whether this was a breach of employment law," Woodhouse said.

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Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox said it was "slave labour".

"They came from the States thinking they were getting something when they were doing something else, that is slave labour, not free labour, and they should be ashamed of themselves," Fox said.

"There is a stench in the air, and it's the stench of hypocrisy."

BROCHURE PROMISED A LOT

"The campaign fellowship programme gives the fellows a glance into what a career in politics would be like, as well as offering the fellows special access to senior MPs and important decision makers in the party," a brochure promised.

"Although we are unable to compensate our fellows financially, the campaign fellowship will stand out on your CV and both organisers are happy to serve as a reference upon successful completion of the fellowship."

"Fellows will be instructed in the fundamentals of a successful campaign - from knocking on doors to recruiting volunteers to use the party's campaign software - but will progress quickly and ultimately may build and train their own teams and lead campaign activity across Auckland.

The students arrived several weeks ago and problems were apparent immediately - with some of them returning home on the first day.

The problems mostly concerned their accommodation at Awataha Marae in Northcote.

According to the report in Politik, fellows complained about cramped dormitory space, a broken shower, broken cupboard doors, and unfinished construction work.

Campaign work was mostly just phone banking, rather than door-to-door work.

General Secretary of the Labour Party Andrew Kirton heard about the problems with the scheme late last week and flew up on Monday to sort things out.

"A few days ago I was alerted to some issues with Matt McCarten's programme. They were basically related to capacity and Matt's capacity to run the programme."

"We have stepped in and taken the programme over and we are sorting it out."

Andrew Little told NZME it was "embarrassing".

"The party became aware earlier this week of just how things were, and they have stepped in to take over...to basically clean it all up.

"I can't deny it - it is embarrassing, it is the wrong thing to do. I have said to the party the only thing that matters is the welfare of those people. So we sort that out and we look after people, and that is what the party is in the process of doing."

Matt McCarten admitted the programme was "oversubscribed".

"The programme was extremely popular and quickly became oversubscribed. The scale of the programme is now greater than I can manage, and I am aware of issues that this has caused.

"Earlier this week the Labour Party Head Office contacted me about these issues and requested to take the programme over so that it could resolve them. I have agreed to this and am no longer involved in the programme."

"My intention from the start has been to give young people a positive experience in the New Zealand political system and I regret that the programme has not lived up to this promise for all volunteers."

The Labour Party is now distributing the fellows to campaigns around the programme and billeting them with Labour supporters, or financially supporting their return home.

The speeches from Helen Clark and others were unlikely to proceed.

"That was not something I was aware of from head office," Kirton said.

He understood the students were on work visas but he was working to confirm this.

"We're working through with the students individually to work through their individual circumstances and what they want to do."

He said a six-week unpaid internship was consistent with other political fellowship programmes around the world.

The National Party said Labour has "explaining to do".

"This is truly appalling behaviour both for its lack of human decency and industrial strength hypocrisy," campaign chair Steven Joyce said.

"If the allegations are correct, Labour has brought international students to New Zealand on false pretences, failed to look after them, and failed to meet their obligations to the students in the most basic way, while at the same time campaigning against exploitation of migrants.

Media attempting to enter the marae were stopped by security guards. Kirton said the Marae was private property and the owners wished to keep media off the grounds.

The Labour Party announced a policy aimed at cutting down on international student visas a few weeks ago, saying cowboy operators were bringing students in and providing substandard educational opportunities.

 - Stuff

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