Seasonal workers 'ripped off and exploited' – NZ union boss

Trade unions in New Zealand say they're alarmed after fresh revelations which appear to show migrant seasonal workers being exploited and badly treated in Blenheim.

A report this week by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner says workers paying $150 to live in crowded unhealthy homes in the middle of winter. 

The Commissioner Saunoamaali'i Karanina Sumeo witnessed it first hand after travelling undercover to Blenheim last month to investigate the work and living conditions of the workers.​

Council of Trade Unions President Richard Wagstaff says he was alarmed to see the report asserting "that migrant horticultural workers in Blenheim have been effectively ripped off and exploited having to being charged $150 a week to sleep in pretty poor conditions and have transport and clothing deducted from their pay.​

“Some employers think the RSE scheme is an opportunity to cheat people and treat them badly to get cheap labour and really treat labourers as though without dignity and without respect.”

He says workers are vulnerable and often find it difficult to know their rights and push back when they’re not being treated well. 

Wagstaff also criticised the Labour Inspectorate and Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment for not upholding minimum employment standards but leaving the abuse go unnoticed.

His criticisms were echoed by the Green Party’s spokesperson for Pacific Peoples Teanau Tuiono, who accused MBIE and Labour Inspectorate of showing "they don’t even care” about RSE workers. 

“The Recognised Seasonal Employers scheme needs an urgent overhaul so it can guarantee that people who come to Aotearoa to work temporarily are treated with fairness and compassion — no matter where they’re from,” says Tuiono.

Wagstaff says there has always been concerns with the Scheme and is calling for Minister of Workplace Relations and Safety Michael Wood to fast track a review into the RSE scheme.

“The problems associated with not being able to move employment because of being tied to visas and so on and bonded situations really is a recipe for exploitation," Waggstaff says.​

The Green Party’s spokesperson for immigration Ricardo Menéndez March says Pacific migrant workers deserve fair pathways to residency and schemes that afford them the same rights as other migrants.

“Migrants from the Pacific and elsewhere who come to New Zealand and care for our elderly, build our infrastructure and homes, and process our food deserve to be recognised and supported, not kicked out if their employers decide they’re no longer useful.”

He says RSE workers should have guaranteed access to the Pacific Access Visa and then residency for those wanting to stay and put down roots in New Zealand.