A statement from Don Franks and James Robb, Workers Now candidates for Wellington Central and Panmure-Ōtāhuhu. 31 August 2023.
The Minister of Immigration. Andrew Little, has ordered a ‘review’ of the Accredited Employer Work Visa Scheme, after revelations of widespread abuses which left more than a hundred migrant workers from India and Bangladesh jobless in Auckland. The workers were stuck in squalid overcrowded conditions, relying on the charity of the local mosque for food.
Little has said there are “serious concerns” about exploitation of workers and abuses of the Scheme. Some 81,000 migrant workers have arrived under the scheme since it was set up just over a year ago. Some industries have become heavily dependent on immigrant workers brought in under such schemes, including horticulture, construction, large sectors of private health care and hospitality, and now, urban bus transport.
Little’s professed concern about exploitation and abuses of migrant workers is the purest hypocrisy. Superexploitation of migrants from low-wage countries is the whole purpose of such work visa schemes. They rest on the huge inequality of wage levels between the developed countries like New Zealand, and the countries of the semicolonial world where the immigrants come from, including most of Asia, the Pacific Islands, South America and Africa. Such schemes harness that inequality, and the desperation of workers seeking to escape those conditions, for the benefit of employers in New Zealand. They aim to make some of that cheap labour available to the bosses in New Zealand. Some 27,900 employers have signed up for this profit-building gift from the government.
All workers are exploited. No employer in the history of capitalism has ever hired a worker as an act of generosity. They hire us because they can make more money from selling the things we produce with our labour than they pay us in wages. Exploitation is built into the wages system – this is where their profits come from, at the normal price of labour.
When the big-business media talk about exploitation, they are referring to superexploitation, when workers have to work even longer hours and for lower wages than the norm, and are frequently scammed for large sums of money paid to ‘agents’ and middlemen along the way.
The Accredited Employer Work Visa scheme was set up to facilitate superexploitation of migrant workers. It has set in motion a swarm of ‘recruiters’ and ‘immigration agents’ in the countries where the workers are recruited, parasites who profit from the desperation of workers seeking to migrate, charging them tens of thousands for a visa, apparently without any regulation or control. There is nothing new about selling visas – in fact, the government itself charges extortionate fees.
Under the scheme, workers are contracted to a single employer for up to three years. This leaves them dependent on the boss not just for their wages, but for their right to remain in the country, and thus it makes it very difficult for them to fight for their rights, or even to complain about abuses by their employers. The prospect of eventually gaining permanent residency in New Zealand and bringing out their families is dangled before them, even though this is impossible for most.
Even when the migrant workers are paid equal wages to New Zealand-born workers, the government still escapes having to pay their social wage – the costs of their occupational training, health care and education for their children, care of their retired family members, and so on, still falls on their families back in their country of origin. (This also applies to many immigrants on other visas as well). It’s a win-win situation for the employers and the government that serves them.
Schemes like this are added obstacles to union organisation. Using this scheme, urban bus transport companies have largely been able to solve the labour shortages which caused widespread cancellations of services earlier in the year. In Auckland alone, hundreds of immigrant bus drivers have been hired in the past six months. But these workers are hired on a separate contract, different from the contract covering the unionised drivers. Some of them were told that if they joined the union they would be dismissed and deported. This was later retracted when it was pointed out to the bosses that it was illegal to make such a threat. But few of the drivers have joined the union nonetheless. The separate contract is a serious threat to all the bus drivers.
The government has moved against violations of the scheme – by further punishing the victims of the scams. Ten workers have been turned back at the airport. They held valid visas, for which they had been charged tens of thousands of dollars, and had been recruited by fraudulent employers. Hundreds more have been contacted and told not to leave their home countries. To date, no employer has been prosecuted. This is a government that serves the employers and no one else.
What should the labour movement do in response to this situation?
First – fight to abolish the Accredited Employer Work Visa scheme, with all its oppressive anti-worker provisions. Let in all the visa-holders who have been turned back, now. Eliminate the parasitic ‘immigration agents’ who extort large sums in exchange for visas, by taking the process out of private hands, and operating only through the consular officials. Let the employers who want to hire immigrants pay the costs.
Fight for full union rights for all immigrant workers on arrival. No separate contracts. For equal pay and conditions for all workers, immigrant and native-born. Prosecute the employers who threaten sanctions against migrant workers who join unions.
Full residency and civil rights for migrant workers, including the right to vote. Full freedom of movement within the country, no restrictions on changing jobs, no restrictions on where workers may live or contacts and relationships with local people. Citizenship rights for those who choose to stay. Open the borders to the free movement of labour, as a step towards overcoming the unequal wages which divide and weaken our class internationally.
is standing for the working class in the 2023 general election. Support the campaign by making copies of this leaflet and taking some to hand around in your workplace or neighbourhood. Contact Don Franks, candidate for Wellington Central, firstname.lastname@example.org, or James Robb, candidate for Panmure-Ōtāhuhu, email@example.com