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Worker exploitation isn't widespread: govt

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 13/12/2016

Migrant worker exploitation isn't widespread in New Zealand, the government is saying, despite a report that accuses some employers of treating their staff like slaves.

The study found some people were working up to 18-hour shifts without a break, were being paid as little as $4 an hour and examples of a cash-for-residency scheme where workers were exploited in return for employers assisting with their visa status.

Over the course of two years, report author Dr Catherine Stringer interviewed 105 people, mostly workers but also those involved with advocacy groups, to look into the claims of exploitation.

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

Questioned in parliament, Workplace Relations Minister Michael Woodhouse said exploitation in any form or quantity was a serious concern.

"But I don't consider it to be pervasive - the vast majority of employers are law-abiding and treat their employees fairly," he said.

"Given the tens of thousands or more of overseas workers during the period of those 105 stories - I don't think that constitutes pervasive or widespread exploitation."

Dr Stringer found workers were being exploited in different ways across the construction, dairy, horticulture, hospitality and sex work industries, along with those studying in the country.

Peter Mihaere, from the group Stand Against Slavery, one of six organisations that commissioned the research for The Human Trafficking Research Coalition, said it provided evidence of what it was hearing anecdotally.

"This shows that slavery isn't something that's happening 'over there' - it's right in our backyards. For our economy and international reputation's sake - and the sake of all the vulnerable people caught up in this - we need to act now," he said.

Among the 11 recommendations, it wants the government to set up a human trafficking office and consider bringing in legislation to make it unlawful for companies with forced labour in their supply chain to operate in New Zealand.

Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Jackie Blue said the government needed to act on the recommendations.

"More needs to be done to ensure the human rights of all workers are being upheld through further research and monitoring," she said.

Dr Blue said the report was further evidence of human rights abuses happening in New Zealand.

"This report, in addition to the country's first human trafficking conviction earlier this year, is confirmation that grave human rights abuses are taking place in the employment of particularly migrants and that steps need to be immediately taken to address the issue."

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