Some Thoughts on Migrant Abuse

Newsroom published a piece this morning on Labour’s plans to launch an inquiry into the abuse of migrants by eduction institutions and businesses. The piece reads large numbers of migrants are essentially having their livelihoods held to ransom, as employers and education institutions exploit their economic situations. Migrants looking to immigrate to New Zealand and achieve permanent residency must submit themselves to the will of their employers; it is only with the approval of an employer and a stable job that permanent residency can be attained.

Iain Lees-Galloway says Labour is working to end the “shameful exploitation of international students”, but he also shows his concern for the industries exploiting these workers by “[slowing] down work on removing these in-study and post-study work rights after the international education industry argued it would hit revenues”. The interests of the workers and these industries directly contradict each other; migrant workers come to New Zealand in search of higher pay, but employers hire migrant workers in order to lower expenses, and education institutions offer courses to migrant workers in order to make money.

New Zealand workers are also negatively affected by this exploitation of migrants. The unemployment rate is currently 4.5%, which is not full employment. The labour market is currently a buyer’s market, so workers who are willing to work in sub-standard and illegal conditions have an advantage in finding a job. Workers willing to be bonded to a specific employer are also more highly sought after. This is, of course, a race to the bottom; workers who will work in the worst conditions have the best chance of finding employment; this disadvantages both them and other workers.

Newsroom highlights this point, “fixing the problem of migrant abuse will be difficult for both the international education industry, which has estimated it creates economic value of $4.5 billion, and many small businesses, which are effectively subsidised by either underpaying their workers, or by receiving money from their workers”. This is the crux of the matter, employers and education institutions seek to profit from migrant workers, so it is in their best interest to hold power over them. Giving migrant workers stronger rights will hurt the industries which exploit them.

We should, however, look critically at the proposed solutions. Auckland migration lawyer, Alastiar McClymont suggests “[we have] got to have the ability for these people to swap employers with ease”. This, on the face of things, solves the issue of migrants being bound to one employer for the period of their work visa as they apply for permanent residency. But, in reality, workers will still be competing against one another for occupations which can lead to permanent residency. They will still be beholden to their employers, but with slightly more mobility.

Hopefully the government’s inquiry will lead to some real steps forward for workers in New Zealand, both citizens and migrant workers. But the necessity of this inquiry highlights the real issue, of employers playing workers off against each other in a race to the bottom. The only way we can shield ourselves from this is to stand together. Support migrant workers, and join your union!

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