Housing standards worry advocates

GARAGE ROOM: A room constructed in the garage of a Champion St address is rented to Filipino workers.
GARAGE ROOM: A room constructed in the garage of a Champion St address is rented to Filipino workers.

Migrant advocates are concerned about the standards of accommodation provided to Christchurch rebuild workers.

Several Filipino workers opened their doors to The Press this week.

In a St Albans house, nine workers shared four bedrooms, a small kitchen and one toilet, paying a total of about $1200 a week in rent.

GARAGE ROOM: A room constructed in the garage of a Champion St address is rented to Filipino workers.
GARAGE ROOM: A room constructed in the garage of a Champion St address is rented to Filipino workers.

Council of Trade Unions rebuild co-ordinator Paul Watson said this was only the tip of the iceberg of what he believes are "exploitative practices" across the city causing growing concern.

He referred to a case where a local recruitment company had housed up to 33 workers in a seven-bedroom home this year, charging them $150 a week in rent each. Watson would not name the company because he was in discussions with management.

The Press this week investigated a limited liability company which presents itself as a not-for-profit organisation. World Changing leases 12 houses in Christchurch and rents them to migrants. We visited three.

The first house was the one shared by nine workers. In one room, workers had hung fabric with coat hangers around two of the three beds for privacy.

Paint was coming off the walls and the carpet was worn out and stained.

The tenants, speaking anonymously, said they found the house overcrowded. The ones sharing a room with two other workers said they had not been given a choice of where to stay or what kind of room they would get.

They said they knew they were free to leave but were afraid they would be unable to find another place to stay. Several of them said they would not be able to afford to pay a bond.

World Changing was created by Buildtech's previous general manager, Phil Cooper. He resigned this year to focus on the organisation, which provides accommodation and pastoral care to Filipino migrants in Christchurch.

Cooper's son, Israel, is Buildtech's director, and most of World Changing's tenants are Buildtech workers.

Cooper said workers were housed free of charge two weeks after arrival in New Zealand. There was no bond, no letting fee and no contract committing workers to the accommodation.

Workers were charged $130 weekly for a shared room, and $180 for a single room. This included power, internet and access to The Filipino Channel on television, Cooper said in a statement.

Some residents were allowed to stay even though they could not pay the rent while out of work.

World Changing provided other services including assistance to set up bank accounts, health insurance and cultural events.

Cooper said World Changing was not a registered charity, but operated as a not-for-profit organisation, reinvesting money back into Filipino communities here and in the Philippines.

It was applying for charitable status. Last year, it funded events including a free community concert in typhoon-ravaged Tacloban.

Only two of the 12 houses World Changing operated had three people in one room "as a temporary measure", he said.

"Some workers actively chose to share rooms as means of reducing their overall living costs," he said. "This is not our preference."

The second house The Press visited in Edgeware was quake-damaged, with big cracks on the walls and a sunken floor.

Seven workers shared three small bedrooms, a sleepout built inside the garage and one bathroom, together paying more than $900 a week in rent.

Two tenants said when they arrived in New Zealand, they did not know where and how to look for a house, and did not have enough money to pay for a deposit.

"We don't have any choice," one of them said.

The third house consisted of makeshift bedrooms built inside a big house in New Brighton.

Eleven workers shared two bathrooms and about eight small rooms. Some had a room to themselves, others shared with another worker. In the big shared spaces, workers huddled on couches wearing hats and jackets to keep warm.

Some areas were dark with holes in the ceiling instead of lighting.

Christchurch Migrant Centre manager Rex Gibson said the overcrowding problem was spread across the city.

He said nine adults sharing a small house with only one toilet raised hygiene concerns.

He expected better from World Changing, which presented itself as a Christian organisation.

The Press revealed last year that Phil Cooper was previously implicated in Australia for alleged visa infringements relating to Filipino workers.

The business he operated there was barred, in 2008, from using foreign workers for five years for visa programme abuses.

The allegations included claims the company was charging workers high rents for accommodation in houses provided by the firm and contravening pay and workplace safety regulations.

The Press