Filipino nurses are being forced to work in what health officials describe as "slave labour" conditions in New Zealand rest homes to pay off often-exorbitant fees to recruitment agents and loan sharks.
A Weekend Herald investigation has found that some nurses are paying several times the true costs for work permits, bridging courses and registration in New Zealand, and are then bonded to work for up to three years at low wages in rest homes.
The Counties Manukau District Health Board signed a deal last week with a Philippines Government agency to bring nurses direct from the Philippines, cutting out private agents.
The Government's new Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme for horticultural workers from the Pacific also bans the use of any "recruitment agent who seeks a commission from workers".
But despite this, the seasonal work scheme has also run into problems. At least one Tongan group of 18 has gone home early after refusing to pick fruit for the offered rate of $45 a bin, and another Tongan, Saia 'Aholelei, has appealed to Associate Immigration Minister Shane Jones after his work permit was revoked.
The number of low-paid workers being brought into New Zealand, mainly from poorer countries, has skyrocketed as unemployment has fallen. Work permits issued for 13 low-wage sectors have jumped more than 10-fold since 2002-03 from 1443 to 15,235.
But Mr 'Aholelei said he and other workers were shocked by the conditions they were expected to live in, with five men to a cabin at Aranga Backpackers in Kerikeri, and wages which left him with only $100 to $200 a week in the hand after deductions to repay his air fare, rent, medical insurance, tax and a savings scheme.
"They thought they were coming to New Zealand as a civilised country, but they end up with living conditions they are in," he said.
"Where I live in Tonga is way better. My kids don't sleep together with the pots and the dirty clothes."
Counties Manukau projects manager Sue Christie said she had seen some contracts for Filipino caregivers in a Northland rest home that were "tyrannical".
"There was no control over the roster or anything. It was almost like a slave labour type of connotation.
"These are people who are skilled nurses in their own country, who have often been working in acute areas of health provision, and what's been happening is that the only opportunity being offered to them in New Zealand when they get registered is in rest homes. If they are bonded for three years ... then they lose a lot of their acute skills quite quickly and at the end of that time the acute services are not wanting to pick them up. So it becomes a double whammy."
Nursing Council chairwoman Beverley Rayna, who manages a Christchurch rest home, said Filipino nurses were being brought in on student visas by private English language schools and trained solely for aged care, instead of doing bridging courses to become New Zealand-registered nurses.
A Filipino solicitor in Henderson, Paulo Garcia, said he had met six Filipinos _ two nurses, two dentists and two accountants _ who were enrolled in a $10,000 homoeopathy course in Kingsland by an agent who claimed that would help them gain residence.
Sue Christie said Counties Manukau had agreed with the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration to bring an initial 36 nurses from the Philippines to an eight-week bridging course at Manukau Institute of Technology, and then into jobs with the district health board.By Simon Collins Email Simon