Dani Wright talks to Dr Christina Stringer about protecting the rights of those who don't feel they can protect themselves in the workplace.

Would you be surprised to find out that some people in New Zealand are working 80 to 90-hour weeks for $500, being paid for half the hours they work or paying their own salary to "buy" permanent residency?

Such findings have been uncovered by a new study suggesting the widespread exploitation of migrant and New Zealand-born workers across many industries, including horticulture, hospitality and construction and was initiated by researcher Dr Christina Stringer, an associate professor in international business at the Auckland Business School.

It was sparked by her research, alongside New Zealand Asia Institute research fellow Glenn Simmons, which exposed egregious labour and human rights abuses in the foreign charter vessel (deep-sea commercial fishing) industry.

"We were keen to understand the extent of fish caught in New Zealand waters being sent to China for processing and then sold to our key trade markets, and sometimes back into the New Zealand market," says Stringer.


"We identified a business model based on slavery."

The evidence they found triggered a ministerial inquiry and a law change. Following this, a group of six NGOs came to Stringer and said there was exploitation in land-based industries too. They asked her to research and understand the extent of the exploitation.

"These industries form the lifeblood of New Zealand's economy," says Stringer. "As well as being a serious human rights issue, findings of migrant worker exploitation puts New Zealand's reputation at risk."

In the report, the focus is on two key sections -- a desk review understanding worker exploitation from 2005 to 2015, then a second section outlining empirical findings.

She admits she just fell into working in this area and is both surprised and not surprised by the results, given her previous research into the fishing industry.

"It just shouldn't be happening," says Stringer.

"It's an area that's hard to determine how widespread the abuse has become because we're talking about an unknown group of people. It's widespread in terms of migrant groups in visa categories."

The aim of her research is for people to become more aware and for those who are exploited to be able to speak up, knowing that New Zealand is a place they can speak up in.


"For anyone it's difficult to speak up against an employer," says Stringer. "In the migrant space it's even more difficult, but Immigration New Zealand is working hard to address some of these issues."

She says government has become increasingly concerned about the extent of abuse and has contributed significant funding to identify and crack down on worker exploitation.

"But, it's still occurring and recently we had the first human trafficking conviction," says Stringer. "This case will set a precedent."

We identified a business model based on slavery

The case involved human trafficking of Fijian workers in New Zealand who were promised earnings seven times that of back home, yet the reality was long hours, sleep on the floors of overcrowded basements and little, if any, pay.

"The main person responsible has been convicted and sentenced to nine years and six months behind bars," says Stringer.

In a report on what it calls modern day slavery, the New Zealand Law Society says stories of abuse and exploitation are becoming more commonplace in New Zealand.

"In my research, the thing that surprised me most was just how vulnerable some of the migrant workers are here in New Zealand," says Stringer. "Some are very scared of losing their jobs."

She interviewed 105 people over two years, with most people workers on a temporary migrant work visa and men in their 20s to 40s.

She uncovered exploitation to do with taxes being deducted but not paid to Inland Revenue, degrading treatment, cash-for-residency schemes and lack of formal contracts.

In the construction industry, she interviewed Filipinos, hired to help in the Christchurch rebuild, who spoke of entering into debt bondage to pay exorbitant recruitment fees of about $10,000 each - some even being forced by their agents to sign blank cheques before leaving the Philippines. Upon arrival in New Zealand, their work experience documents and passports were held by their immigration adviser until they paid off their fees.

The research also showed that although dairy farm workers' conditions had improved, some still described abuse, poor working conditions, lack of pay and poor treatment of animals. One farm worker reported having to milk 1400 cows (with one other person) in the morning and in the afternoon.

Other industries, such as horticulture, were found o have people being paid as little as $5 an hour, and in hospitality one worker reported being paid for 45-hour weeks, but working 90-hour weeks.

Stringer says many temporary migrants put up with this kind of exploitation so they can qualify for permanent residency or because they are coerced and/or deceived by their employer.

She says it is important to report migrant exploitation and you can contact the Labour Contact Centre on 0800 20 90 20 - an interpreter can be arranged to assist with the call if needed. Other options are calling Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111, where reports can be anonymous.

Stringer's research finds the most non-compliance with employment legislation is in the horticulture and hospitality industries, but the exploitation leaks into other industries and with non-migrants too.

"This research uncovers widespread abuse that's normally hidden," she says. "These workers' contribution to our economy must be valued, and the vulnerable among them must be properly protected."