Migrant workers: Visa conditions linked to exploitation

11:54 am on 8 November 2017

In April of last year, everything was going well for Vijender Singh.

He had arrived in New Zealand in 2014 on a student visa, studying business management.

After graduation he had worked for a year at a furniture moving company and, in April last year, was offered a full-time contract as a supervisor.

Navneet Singh was refused a second visa, after some inaccurate information was revealed in relation to his first visa application.

Photo: 123RF

But when he returned home to India for a month in September to visit his mother in hospital, his boss got in touch - and everything started to go downhill.

"He sent me an email 'I just cancelled your contract and visa. Return your uniform'," said Mr Singh.

"I asked my boss, what happened? He said, no bro, I hired someone else. I didn't need you."

Mr Singh believes he was the victim of the convoluted conditions on his visa, an Employer-Assisted, Post-Study Work Visa.

Auckland immigration lawyer Alistair McClymont said this type of problem was common.

"After a student has graduated with a New Zealand qualification they have a one-year open work visa.

"On that work visa they can work for whichever employer they like.

"But in order to obtain a further two-year work visa, they need to have an offer of employment relevant to the New Zealand qualification."

The two-year visa is tied to the employer, which for Mr Singh means now he has been let go he can't work anywhere else, unless another employer chooses to sponsor him.

Mr McClymont said that was a lot easier said than done at this stage.

"The difficulty in getting a job with a different employer is that they're on a closed work visa - so it's restricted.

"That worker can't start work again until they get new visa conditions, which can sometimes take up to two months. And very few employers are willing to wait that period of time.

Mr Singh isn't alone. In October, Peruvian migrant worker Fiorella Granados was awarded more than $20,000 by the Employment Relations Authority after the gym chain she had been working for, Figure-X, routinely underpaid her.

Ms Grandados had threatened to leave the company several times. But the presiding authority member, Eleanor Robinson, noted Ms Granados' visa said she could work only for Figure-X meaning she felt powerless to leave.

Migrant Workers' Association spokesperson Anu Kiloti said those conditions were like a petri dish for worker exploitation.

"It's almost like bonded labour, almost like slavery, because that employer who helped the migrant worker to get the visa, they seem to have absolutely too much power.

"They control these workers and that's how they exploit them."

Alistair McClymont said most exploitation issues involved students who had finished their qualifications and were going on to graduate work visas.

"That, in my experience, would account for about 80 percent of the exploitation problems we're seeing.

"If they were on open work visas you wouldn't have this problem because they then have the freedom to transfer from one workplace to another really easily.

"So if they had, for example, three years of open work visa, rather than just one, then the problems would pretty much disappear as well."

Mr McClymont said the new government's plan to no longer provide visas for low-level study will prevent similar cases arising in future.