Widespread migrant exploitation has been uncovered in New Zealand with a new report stating workers have been unpaid, denied toilet breaks and subjected to threats and abuse by Kiwi bosses.

Dozens of migrant workers who have fallen victim to exploitation and human trafficking in New Zealand have relayed disturbing accounts of abuse to University of Auckland researcher Dr Christina Stringer.

Workers claimed their passports have been confiscated, their movements have been restricted and they've been forced to work up to 18 hours a day and live in overcrowded, substandard accommodation.

Some reported being propositioned for sex by employers while others said New Zealand authorities had refused to listen to their pleas for help because they didn't have the right documentation.

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Two interviewees said they felt like they were "prey", while another commented: "I feel like they own me because of visas." Stringer interviewed more than 100 people during her research, the majority of whom were temporary migrants.

Her report marks the first independent evidence-based research of its kind in the country.

It highlights how migrant exploitation - an often secretive and under-reported issue - has been occurring for years across some of New Zealand's biggest industries, including dairy, horticulture, hospitality and international education.

"The findings of this report, which highlight and uncover areas of significant concern, deserve urgent attention," read the report, titled Worker Exploitation in New Zealand: A Troubling Landscape.

Read more: New Zealand Herald in-depth report on human trafficking

In light of the report, 11 recommendations to prevent human trafficking were presented to the Government by the Human Trafficking Research Coalition, which requested the research.

The coalition called for the Government to take immediate action.

"The industries and sectors mentioned here contribute significantly to the New Zealand economy - some might say they are its lifeblood - so findings of migrant worker exploitation in these areas puts New Zealand's international reputation at risk," it read.

The report's release is timely; coming a day before Faroz Ali, the first person convicted of human trafficking in New Zealand, faces sentencing in the High Court at Auckland.

Faroz Ali was the first person in New Zealand convicted of human trafficking. Photo / Pool
Faroz Ali was the first person in New Zealand convicted of human trafficking. Photo / Pool

Ali was convicted of luring 15 Fijian workers into New Zealand and then exploiting them by withholding pay, forcing them to live in overcrowded conditions and threatening them with deportation if they complained.

Ali faces a maximum penalty of 20 years imprisonment and a $500,000 fine, or both.

In the report, the Ali case was described as just the "tip of the iceberg" of migrant exploitation in New Zealand.

Peter Mihaere, chief executive of Stand Against Slavery and spokesman for the coalition, said releasing the report to Government officials last week was a little bit like "going into the lion's den and telling the lion it's not good".

This research "explores an issue we have known exists for decades but struggled to quantify and explain," Mihaere said.

"Finally, we can move on from the tiresome rhetoric of anecdotal stories to empirical evidence-based research which gives credibility to the faces of those experiencing exploitation in New Zealand."

The exploitation outlined by the migrant workers ranged from shady employment practices to more serious allegations, including physical and sexual abuse.

The report found some workers had been charged recruitment fees of up to $20,000 and then significantly underpaid upon arrival into New Zealand. One interviewee said he worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week for six months, earning just $5 an hour.

Horticulture contractors weeding in Flaxmere, Hastings. Photo / Duncan Brown
Horticulture contractors weeding in Flaxmere, Hastings. Photo / Duncan Brown

Many workers claimed they'd been subjected to degrading language and bullying by Kiwi bosses, supervisors or fellow workers. They reported being told they were "dumb", being sworn at and being refused bathroom breaks.

One interviewee said he was threatened by a contractor who said if he "stand against him.. Nobody's gonna find your dead body in New Zealand."

Many migrants tolerated the exploitation because of the power imbalance between them and their employers, they had limited options to go elsewhere and they had been deceived into thinking their job might lead to permanent residency, the report read.

Some of the workers claimed they had tried to seek help from New Zealand authorities, but been turned down because they didn't have legitimate work contracts.

One interviewee claimed they approached Inland Revenue and Immigration Services "to complain about these guys... but no one is doing anything."

Another said: "No one wants to listen to me."

The report, which took three years to produce, labelled South Auckland as a hotbed of red flags for human trafficking because of its high numbers of young migrants working in target industries.

"We need to work together, carry out more in-depth research and put in place solutions needed for New Zealand to be exploitation and slavery-free," Mihaere said.

Seven key industries vulnerable to exploitation


Construction:

Since the Christchurch earthquake rebuild ramped up, accounts of worker exploitation have been rife in the construction industry. Filipino workers have been exploited with exorbitant fees and forced to live in overcrowded, substandard accommodation.

Dairy:
New Zealand's dairy industry is increasingly dependent on migrant workers. Accounts of worker exploitation have included poor treatment, fees of up to $12,000 to obtain work visas and even starving workers being forced to forage through maize for food.

Fishing:
Widespread labour and human rights abuses have been exposed in New Zealand's foreign charter vessel sector. Allegations include physical, mental and sexual abuse, passports being confiscated, debt bondage and excessively long work hours.

Horticulture and Viticulture:
Growers and producers in New Zealand's seasonal horticulture and viticulture sector are under constant pressure to reduce prices and this can lead to worker exploitation. New Zealand's first conviction of human trafficking came from workers exploited on kiwifruit orchards.

Hospitality:
New Zealand's hospitality industry is a significant employer of temporary migrant workers. Disturbing accounts of exploitation within this industry include forced labour, debt bondage and workers being paid as little as $4 an hour.

International Education:
The international student industry is New Zealand's fourth largest export earner and has recently been growing rapidly. The Herald, and other media, have highlighted the exploitation of international students, including accounts of fraudulent agents and exploitative employers.

Prostitution:
There have been accounts of migrant workers being enticed to New Zealand with promises of work in restaurants or beauty parlours and then forced into the sex trade upon arrival. In one case a young woman was sold to an undercover policeman for $3000.

Ten examples of Exploitation

• Excessive work hours
• Non-payment or underpayment of wages
• Threats of being outed to immigration officials
• Income tax deductions not paid to Inland Revenue
• Denied holiday pay
• No formal employment contracts
• Restriction of movement
• Confiscation of passports
• Degrading treatment and physical abuse
• Denied bathroom breaks

Five Recommendations for the Government

• Mandatory training for frontline staff to identify victims
• Commit to funding further research
• Actively monitor key industries vulnerable to labour exploitation
• Require migrant workers to undergo an induction upon arrival
• Establish a specific human trafficking office