The legislation we need to address New Zealand’s migrant exploitation crisis

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Maya Duckworth
/ Categories: Advocacy


In Tāmaki Makaurau-Auckland, over 100 people have recently been living in crowded housing, waiting months for promised work. The stories of these migrants are reminders that worker exploitation is not only a global problem, it is also a local one.

Leaving homes in India and Bangladesh, these people described to Radio New Zealand how they’d each paid tens of thousands of dollars for a job offer in Aotearoa-New Zealand. They’d mainly signed contracts with several labour-hire companies (companies that recruit workers and then hire them out). All arrived through the Accredited Employment Work Visa scheme. Yet months on from their arrival, most are still waiting for their promised work and pay, and in the meantime, they’ve been living in properties not fit to house so many people. In one three-bedroom house, RNZ reported that there were more than 30 workers living there.


Picture of New Zealand work visa application form

The stories of these migrants are reminders that worker exploitation is not only a global problem, but also a local one. Credit: iStock.


These cases of exploitation are part of a global story

The exploitation of migrant workers in New Zealand, is often part of a larger international story. As an organisation, we’re working to address this gross injustice across this story—internationally through our partners and domestically through our advocacy work.


Through our partners, we work in countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka and Fiji, which are often source countries for traffickers. Our partners work to prevent trafficking and exploitation by running education and enterprise programmes. These programmes differ depending on the location. In Fiji, this includes community learning workshops and toolkits to identify human trafficking and learn how to respond. In the Solomon Islands, our partners run agricultural training to help raise incomes and reduce the vulnerability of communities to human trafficking and exploitation.


Our partner in Thailand works with local law enforcement to prosecute traffickers, preventing more people from being hooked into fraudulent forced labour or coerced into slavery.


For those who have experienced exploitation, our partners in Cambodia, Fiji and the Solomon Islands also offer a safe place to heal and recover. Survivors receive help from counsellors, social workers and a community of others who have been through similar experiences. To reduce their vulnerability to further exploitation, they also receive support to establish livelihood opportunities.


Our partners, like Homes of Hope in Fiji, work to prevent trafficking and sexual exploitation and support survivors to become economically self-sufficient. Credit: Tearfund


Learn more about the excellent work our partners in Fiji and the Solomon Islands are doing to tackle modern slavery and exploitation.

Learn more


Strong modern slavery legislation would make a difference for workers in exploitative situations

As an organisation, we also advocate for structural or policy changes that would see widespread improvement in the reduction of slavery and exploitation. We know our Accredited Employer Work Visa is complex and, exploitation of the scheme isn’t always solely on the side of the employer—some workers arrive in Aotearoa knowing there’s no guarantee of work. Notwithstanding, migrant workers brought to Aotearoa under fraudulent immigration scams and empty promises not only point to the need for changes to the visa scheme, but it’s also a reminder that we need strong modern slavery legislation.

Over the last few years, Tearfund has advocated for modern slavery legislation. The legislation the government recently announced will require large and medium-sized businesses to publicly report on the risks of modern slavery in their supply chains. If our ongoing advocacy for due diligence is successful, this legislation would require these businesses to also take action to address and reduce the risks of slavery in their supply chains. This combination of public reporting and taking action, would not only help stop slavery in international supply chains but go a long way towards addressing this exploitation in our country. Currently, however, this combination of action and reporting isn’t what our government’s proposing.


Tearfund advocates for strong modern slavery legislation. Credit: Adobe


Here’s how strong Modern Slavery Legislation could make a difference:

Requiring businesses to look at the modern slavery risks in their operations and supply chains often leads to increasing scrutiny of other processes that play a role in enabling the exploitation and trafficking of workers. For example, businesses might note their use of temporary migrant workers as a riskier part of their operations, which then shines a light on how some employers are using (or misusing) the Accredited Employer Work Visa scheme. However, unless businesses are required to take action to address these risks, such as ensuring the people they hire are being treated fairly—the modern slavery legislation will do little to help those being exploited.

But other legislative changes are also needed

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has recently announced an investigation into the exploitation of these Indian and Bangladeshi migrants. The Minister of Immigration, Andrew Little, has called for a review of how the Accredited Employer Work Visa scheme is being operated. These are positive steps forward, but ultimately, our government needs to consider the immigration policy itself— not just how it’s being implemented.

The Accredited Employer Work Visa scheme restricts workers to a single employer, meaning if a worker wants to seek alternative work, they must apply for a new visa or change the conditions on their current visa. Neither option is straightforward. This creates a significant power dynamic between employee and employer that has the potential to be exploited. Temporary migrant workers have been identified by the Global Slavery Index as communities that are amongst the most at risk of being coerced and deceived into situations of slavery. If Aotearoa is to significantly address the slavery and exploitation that occurs here, we need to implement strong modern slavery legislation and review our current immigration policy with human rights in mind.


We’ll continue working towards a world where everyone is safe at work and treated with dignity. Credit: iStock


We’ll continue striving for a world where everyone is safe at work (and in their work-provided accommodations), treated with dignity and rewarded fairly—including in Aotearoa. We invite you to join us in this work.


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