Since the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, New Zealand companies have struggled to meet the labor demand needed to rebuild the city's business district. The pressure to deliver a large workforce cheaply has lead to the exploitation of migrant labour from the Philippines. Despite efforts from employment and immigration lawyers to recoup earnings for workers, lax laws against labour trafficking mean that many individuals will be crippled by debt.
Large construction companies such as Business Immigration Limited (BIL) are accused of meeting overseas workers at the airport and giving them just 15 minutes to read and sign an English language contract. These contracts often offer wages below the legal minimum and charge exorbitant relocation and recruitment fees. In the case of BIL, workers can be charged up to $15,000 in immigration and settlement fees—over three times the standard fee for the process. If that money can't be produced, they're loaned it at an interest rate of 14 percent per annum.
The building and recruitment company, Tech 5 have also come under fire for providing migrant workers with substandard living conditions , and of creating purposely restrictive contracts. Allegedly they're also being told that if they leave their job before their three year work period ends, they'll be charged around $10,000 USD in fees. Again the contracts are only provided in English, a practice Stephanie Lambert of Justice Acts New Zealand told VICE is clearly exploitative. She adds, "Until recently, I didn't know there was trafficking and exploitation of this kind in New Zealand. Kiwis think this sort of thing doesn't happen here."
These incidents have drawn criticism from the UN Human Rights Council and the US State Department. But despite the UNHRC stating: "New Zealand does not comply with a number of aspects of International Labour Organisation Convention 143 or the Migrant Workers Convention," the matter has yet to reach a court. This inability to act has lead Stephanie and her team to seek amendments of the Crimes Act to give sufficient protection to victims of exploitation.
At the time of writing, nearly 70 Filipino workers have contacted Employment and Immigration lawyers Paul Brown and Dee Morgan to have their money reimbursed from their employers. Of the workers Dee is representing, none were ever provided a copy of their contract. One worker added, "They never told us what they would do with all money we paid. They never even said what it was for." While Dee acknowledges that all recruitment companies can rightfully charge a fee for relocation, she believes the fee should be no greater than one month's salary.
After approaching the IAA with evidence of exploitation, Dee's appeals have been declined on the grounds of a lack of evidence. She frustratedly told VICE: "The authority can't keep saying there's not enough information. We like to think New Zealand is above trafficking and that we care for the people we bring into this country, but it's just not the case. I'm angry that people are abusing the underprivileged."
Ironically, the most action to be taken has come from the Philippines with authorities suspending New Zealand from recruiting migrant workers, but Dee is concerned this isn't enough to stop the practice elsewhere. When VICE called BIL, they declined to comment.
For now the efforts of lawyers like Stephanie, Paul, and Dee have proven largely ineffective. But they hope that by increasing the visibility of the issue, the government will be forced to intervene. As Dee concludes, "foreign workers come to New Zealand to give their children a better life. We have to give them that opportunity."
Follow Caitlin on Twitter: @amongthenarciss