A recent New Zealand Herald article with the headline ‘International students ‘cheat system, take jobs’ is incredibly disappointing. It unfairly scapegoats international students and blames them for the conditions that have led to their systemic exploitation.
Some facts first
Let’s start off with some facts, shall we? Out of the 100,000+ students who are studying here in New Zealand, only about a third take up employment in New Zealand and choose to work. By omitting this statistic from the discussion we unfairly characterise the vast majority of students.
Of that 33,000 or so students who do undertake work here, a substantial portion are subject to exploitation and unfair conditions. The exact number differs from study to study, but it’s been estimated to be as low as 10% and as high as 90%. International students are uniquely vulnerable to exploitation, as many come from families who pulled together family savings and borrowed money to send them here for a shot at a better life. This is not something we should blame students for.
Who is at fault?
The fault rests squarely with the employers who are exploiting these students and with the government which hasn’t done enough to protect them. Employers like Masala who have forced workers to work for 60+ hours a week for $3 an hour are to blame. And the Government is too, because they have pushed for more international students without ensuring a corresponding increase in funding for the labour inspectorate or ensuring that tertiary institutions are providing an adequate level of pastoral care.
How do we fix it?
So how would we fix it? How can we ensure that all guests to Aotearoa are being treated with the manakitanga that everyone in New Zealand deserves?
One of the most important things we need to do is to make sure that migrant workers and international students who experience abuse have their visa rights guaranteed even if they report it.
Why? Because one of the ways that employers prevent employees from reporting abuse is by hanging the potential to stay in New Zealand over their heads. We also need to vastly increase the number of labour inspectors in New Zealand and if necessary set up a special task force to monitor migrant labour abuse. We know that nearly 1 in 5 investigations into suspected breaches of minimum employment standards are not completed within 6 months of the complaint being made – when the target is for 90% completed investigations.
Last week, the NZ Herald also reported on cash-for-jobs scams that are happening routinely to further exploit migrant workers and noted that the labour inspectorate has a back log of these cases to deal with.
We need to bear in mind that the labour inspectorate are only dealing with the reported breaches. There’s likely to be thousands and thousands of other cases. The union movement – through unions like the First Union’s UNIMEG and the Migrant Worker’s Alliance – do a good job in helping migrant workers know their rights but they struggle to reach all vulnerable workers. We could be doing more by involving our trade unions in migrant and newcomer orientation and changing our employment laws to allow better access for working people to organise and negotiate.
Everyone deserves to be treated with compassion and dignity. We can and should be doing more to give dignity to international students at risk of exploitation. Sensationalist headlines like this one not only create scapegoats but fail to address the real problems around migrant worker exploitation.