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Amy Kelley: Cheap labour more than a 'migrant problem'

opinion

By Amy Kelley

Published: 10:23AM Wednesday August 15, 2012 Source: ONE News

Ask a migrant why they moved to New Zealand and inevitably they'll tell you they hoped for "a better life".

Most never pictured themselves working 60-70 hours a week, earning just $8 or $9 an hour, for an employer who claims he too is just trying to get ahead.

Over the last three months I've been investigating the exploitation of migrant workers, often by small business owners who are migrants themselves.

Employers in hospitality, horticulture and trades are some of the biggest culprits. It's not uncommon for them to pay as little as $8 an hour - well below New Zealand's minimum wage of $13.50.

In my story on ONE News at 6pm you can see them in action - our covert footage shows business owners offering pay rates that would see most Kiwis double-over in disbelief.

And yet, these positions are in high demand in the migrant community. Any job is.

Of course, it's a two-way street and some employees are playing the system too: working more hours than their visa allows, and in the most extreme cases, paying an employer thousands of dollars for a job offer.

But what is it about our immigration system and economy that leads to such desperate measures?

The Department of Labour says it relies on employees to report dodgy bosses. Unfortunately many migrants don't, fearing their residency is at risk.

And they know they're not guaranteed a result. Of the 612 minimum wage complaints the Department investigated last year, less than half resulted in compliance by the employer.

Perhaps it's time for a more proactive approach. More labour inspectors, more spontaneous workplace checks, and better enforcement of the up to $20,000 fine for employers who breach minimum wage laws. And better support for migrant workers (the DOL hotline doesn't employ any Mandarin speakers) and an assurance they won't be kicked out of the country if they come forward.

What we can't do is leave things unchanged. This isn't just a "migrant problem".

Consider the Kiwi businesses being undercut by those using cheap labour. Or the $7 billion a year the country is losing in unpaid tax because of bosses who pay under the table.

Then there's the overseas student market - New Zealand's fifth largest export earner. If we allow the exploitation of student migrants to continue, we're putting that at serious risk.

There's nothing to be gained by sweeping this issue under the carpet. It's time for an open and honest discussion about what New Zealand stands for, and how we can give migrants a real chance at the future they came here for.

If you want to know more about your employment rights, phone the Department of Labour hotline on 0800 209020.
And if you've been paid below the minimum wage, email amy.kelley@tvnz.co.nz

Does NZ lose out from migrants getting a bad deal? Comment below.

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