By Gilbert Wong

International business expert Christina Stringer has lifted the lid on migrant workers facing serious exploitation in New Zealand.

When a temporary migrant worker queried his $8 an hour wage for an 80-hour week job, his employer told him, “We are the citizens here, you can’t touch us.”

In a series of interviews migrant workers spoke of feeling anxious, depressed and suicidal. They felt trapped in a system of exploitation that in some respects resembled organised crime, with regular pay-offs demanded from workers and potential threats to family in home countries if workers complained.

Temporary migrant workers, often in agriculture, retail and service industries, have become a crucial part of the Aotearoa New Zealand workforce, with more than 220,000 temporary work visas issued annually until the borders closed in 2020 due to the pandemic.

Their experience, good or bad, is important, to our economy and reputation. Sad to say, Christina Stringer, Associate Professor in the Centre for Research on Modern Slavery at the University of Auckland Business School, has listened to vulnerable migrant workers tell repeated stories of exploitation.

“It’s just been part of the landscape of work here,” she says. The case studies and analysis in the report Temporary Migrant Worker Exploitation in New Zealand, she produced with colleague Francis Collins of the University of Waikato, provided the most recent close up look at what is being dubbed a modern version of slavery.

Stringer says, “It’s wrong and it’s illegal but also you feel a sense of horror that this kind of thing can happen in our country.” Her years of research into this unpalatable part of the economy has established her as an international expert on modern slavery.

The contemporary version of this social stain, ranges from pauper’s wages to forced labour. Modern slavery keeps workers in an abusive employment arrangement and it has become a pervasive and insidious part of the global economy, moving from child labour in developing nations, to migrant workers facing illegal and cruel work practices in the middle of the developed world’s metropolises.

Stringer has found herself in situations rare for academics. There was the time she drove from a car park in Auckland with two migrant workers crouched hidden behind her rear seats to avoid fishing company representatives who had been tailing them. The workers were terrified they would be identified. She delivered the workers home safely. “This did nothing to put me off. If anything it made me more determined.”

That incident happened when her research into modern slavery was just beginning. “I stumbled into this by accident because my background was in international business.” Her research journey was sparked by a project requested by the then Ministry of Fisheries. The Ministry wanted to understand the amount of fish caught in New Zealand waters that was sent offshore for processing.

“During the course of that research we identified a business model based on forced labour,” she says. So research to scope a potential lost economic opportunity for New Zealand shifted to unpeeling the shadowy world of migrant worker exploitation.

Her first experience in this area resulted in the report Not in New Zealand’s waters, surely? Labour and human rights abuses aboard foreign fishing vessels, co-written with Glenn Simmons and Daren Coulston in 2011, the research proved a damning indictment of conditions and treatment of crew recruited from developing nations aboard foreign crewed charter vessels fishing in New Zealand’s exclusive economic zone.

Interviews revealed non-payment and under-payment of wages and inhumane working conditions and instances of serious physical and sexual assault. Those interviewed spoke of being fed rotten fish bait for food and sleeping quarters rife with cockroaches and bed bugs, of working such long shifts to exhaustion. The research led to a ministerial inquiry, a major shift in government policy, and the eventual enactment of a law requiring all foreign charter vessels to be reflagged to New Zealand, ensuring better protections.

“When you have a business that is exploiting migrant workers that is putting legitimate businesses at a disadvantage. It has a corrosive effect. It can force legitimate business to engage in the same practices to remain competitive.”

Following the research on foreign charter vessels in New Zealand waters, Stringer was asked by the Human Trafficking Research Coalition – a coalition of non-governmental organisations – to look at land-based industries. This, in turn, led to a further major project for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment on temporary migrant worker exploitation in 2019.

From her previous experience, Stringer had access to closed Facebook pages and WeChat forums that allowed her and colleague Francis Collins to place advertisements seeking temporary migrant workers who might want to share their experiences. In all they interviewed more than 60 migrant workers, and a similar number of employers, work brokers and migrant work advocates.

She found exploitation occurring most frequently with migrants issued student and employer assisted visas. Interviewees told of being sold a dream of permanent residency through study or a specific job.

To make that dream a reality, the migrant workers often paid a middleman or agent a considerable sum, sometimes, says Stringer, up to $50,000. She was told some private training establishments were complicit in these arrangements, concentrating a supposed fulltime study course across two days to enable students to take on much more than the 20 hours a week allowed under their visa conditions, with employers paying the extra hours in cash.

For migrant workers arriving in New Zealand to work for a specific employer, those interviewed found that the work and payment did not match the promise. As one worker said, “My visa is attached to my employer so exploitation is my destiny.”

Her research indicates that employers in a range of sectors, had built their business model on exploitation. Stringer and Collins do not compare what’s happening to organised crime lightly. Fourteen of the interviewees were required to pay their employer for their job, with one person visited by a ‘middleman’ each week demanding cash to return to the employer.

A common practice was for a worker to be paid their contractual amount, but then be forced to repay the difference between $8 per hour and minimum wage back to the employer, allowing the business to maintain legitimate records. Some workers reported working between 70 and 90 hours a week at $8 per hour. A migrant worker on a dairy farm said he worked 32 days straight without a day off, each day lasting up to 14 hours.

Exploitation left people devastated and desperate. Stringer recalls a person who had given up their hopes of residency and was returning to their home country. “The person was just broken. They had absolutely given up and this and other interviews were very emotional, they ended in tears.”

Hidden population

One interviewee spoke of ‘losing their youth’, after spending four years studying for a qualification that had no value in New Zealand, working for wages that did not provide enough to survive which forced their parents into substantial debt to support them. Others spoke of having to overcome suicidal thoughts and a sense of being trapped.

There was no expectation on the part of the temporary migrant workers who came forward to speak that they would gain anything. “In a lot of cases, it was an opportunity to finally tell their story,” she says, and in sharing that story, many hoped that the situation for future temporary migrant workers might improve.

While she was able to conduct in-depth interviews with relatively few temporary migrant workers, considering the numbers in New Zealand, she does not think they were outliers. “Those were the ones brave enough to speak up. The themes were clear in what they told us. This is very much a hidden population and we believe this is happening on a significant scale.”

As with her previous work with foreign crewed chartered fishing vessels, her research has led to change, with the research informing a set of policy and operational changes put in place by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment in 2020 to reduce migrant work exploitation. The Prevent/Protect/Enforce plan outlines a series of actions, from higher standards of accreditation for franchisees under the employer-assisted visa system, disqualifying people convicted of exploitation and people trafficking from managing or directing a company to a helpline, new visa categories to enable migrant workers to quit exploitative work.

The plan will also create new immigration offences, strengthen the powers of the Labour Inspectorate and educate migrant workers on their rights and employer obligations. Stringer says the plan is a good start, but her research is a long way from finished.

Modern slavery

At the Business School, she and colleagues have established a new Centre for Research on Modern Slavery. Her previous work has investigated the wider themes of worker exploitation, the drivers, impact and potential paths to redress. Looking ahead, she wants to focus in on particular sectors. Underway is a new project looking at liquor stores.

Funded by the New Zealand Law Foundation, the Centre will also look at whether New Zealand needs a modern slavery act. The United Kingdom and Australia have put in place legislation, Canada is considering it and based on Stringer and colleagues’ body of research to date, it seems clear that New Zealand faces similar problems.

Slavery in its historic sense where people were bought and sold as property, still sits under the Crimes Act. Until 2020 nobody had been convicted of the charge. However Hawkes’ Bay man 66-year-old Joseph Matamata was found guilty on 13 charges of dealing in slaves and 10 charges of trafficking in people in 2020, a case that Stringer says shows the hidden depths of exploitation in New Zealand.

Modern slavery, which has yet to have a widely accepted legal definition, encompasses a range of exploitative actions that have become common worldwide. They include forced labour, debt bondage and human trafficking.

Stringer’s work sits directly in the cross-over between academic research and advocacy for a better society. Her view is that academics have a strong responsibility to not only examine but seek to address urgent social issues. “We should not be an Ivory Tower. Under the Education Act, we’re meant to be the critic and conscience of society.”

This article was originally published as part of The Challenge series and was republished with permission. 

The Challenge is a continuing series from the University of Auckland about how researchers are helping to tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges.

Christina Stringer is an Associate Professor in Management and International Business at the University of Auckland. She is an expert in forced labour and human trafficking in the fishing industry.

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this article reflect the author’s views and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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