Cross-Examination: Building on Shaky Ground? – The Christchurch Rebuild and Migrant Workers’ Rights

Lydia Buckley, Content Contributor

Recently, the Government made the decision to relax some of our immigration laws with the purpose of allowing more workers from overseas to assist with the rebuild of Christchurch following the devastating earthquakes of 2011.[1] Four years on, crumbling buildings and construction tape still disfigure the CBD and the Government argues that there are simply not enough New Zealand workers to get the job done. New Zealand plans to open its borders to approximately 5000 low-skilled workers by making specific changes to existing immigration rules regarding Essential Skill work visas to try and remedy this skill shortage. Rebuilding Christchurch will be beneficial to the entire economy, since a brand new city will create scores of new jobs and opportunities for New Zealanders affected by the quake.[2]

However, the benefits of the new rules for the immigrant workers are less clear-cut. This influx of immigrants could create new possibilities and prospects for the low skilled workers but, equally, there is a risk that this decision could enable hiring companies to exploit these immigrants for cheap labour. This would be damaging to the wellbeing of low skilled migrants moving to the country in breach of New Zealand’s international obligations as well as being detrimental to local workers. EQ-migrants There are three main changes that the government intends to make to current immigration laws.[3] Firstly, the new rules will extend the maximum duration of Essential Skills work visas for low-skilled workers from one year to three years. Formerly a visa of this kind would expire after one year, after which time the employer would have to prove to the Department of Immigration that there were no New Zealand workers available before renewing the visa. Secondly, low-skilled immigrants with work visas for the Christchurch area will be able to change employers without having to apply for a Variation of Conditions on their visa. Lastly, the changes will introduce an accreditation scheme for companies looking to employ labour. This scheme will be a set of guidelines or rules that all employers must follow which are designed to look after immigrant workers as well as ensuring that New Zealand workers are not unfairly disadvantaged in finding work.

These changes to New Zealand policies have some positive benefits for both migrants as well as New Zealanders, but also raise some questions about how the policies might best be implemented. A common concern with regards to the engagement of low-skilled foreign labour is the vulnerability of such workers to exploitation by employers.[4] The changes appoint some safeguards to lessen this possibility. The accreditation scheme hopes to set high standards for labour hire companies who wish to employ immigrant labour. These include a minimum salary that aligns with the current New Zealand market, full time hours and a minimum employment period of 24 months. Additionally, the ability of employees on Essential Skills work visas to switch employers without altering their visa allows employees the power to choose an employer that works best for them or offers them the most advantageous contract. This will hopefully encourage competitive wages and workplace standards and motivate companies to ensure good working conditions for their employees. These are welcome changes and guarantees for legal immigrant workers.

However, for immigrants who come to New Zealand illegally — or who come initially legally but stay past the expiration of their visa — there is a huge disparity in bargaining power. No matter how little they are paid, or how poorly they are treated, employees with no legal status to live and work in New Zealand cannot stand up for their rights for fear of being deported. This opens up a window for employers to take advantage of these immigrants, particularly low-skilled labourers, in exchange for turning a blind eye to their illegal residency. Relaxing immigration rules will encourage immigrants to apply to work legally in New Zealand rather than run this risk,[5] which will allow the Government to have a greater role in ensuring that employers of these low-skilled immigrants meet employment regulations. EQ-migrants-2 The greater security that these policies provide for immigrants relocating to New Zealand for employment is in accordance with international standards. Conventions like the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Migration for Employment Convention require that parties to the Convention open their borders and welcome different cultures and ways of life.[6] By doing so, New Zealand attempts to break down often artificial boundaries between nations. Promoting this diversification of New Zealand’s culture and the equality of opportunity will make the country a safer place to live because it will reduce the racial stigma that is sometimes directed at immigrants due to a lack of cultural understanding.

However, there are uncertainties yet to be remedied regarding how these changes will work in practice. The ideas and policies are promising on paper, but when it comes to actual implementation, an issue arises as to whether the government has the resources to enforce these standards regarding workplace practices. With the great influx of workers expected to arrive in the next short two-year period, how possible is it that employers may be able to slip under the radar when it comes to actually implementing these new requirements? A second question that has been left substantially unanswered is what will happen after the rebuild is complete. The Government has stated that rebuilding Christchurch will not be possible without the help of immigrant workers. However, the Immigration New Zealand website makes it clear that an Essential Skills work visa does not guarantee a worker permanent residence after their visa expires.

Is it ethical that the country enlists the crucial aid of these immigrant workers and then dismisses them as soon as their work is done? A comparable circumstance occurred in New Zealand during the 1950s when the end of World War II brought about a period of economic growth and a workforce shortage. The Government reacted similarly, easing immigration rules and implementing new policies that encouraged foreign workers to migrate to New Zealand in order to fill a gap in the labour market. After the boom started to reside and the need for workers diminished, the Government changed their tune and began to crack down on over-stayers with unnecessarily tough measures, such as the infamous Dawn Raids. These raids disproportionately targeted Pacific Islanders and resulted in the creation and continual reinforcing negative stereotypes and unfair prejudice against Polynesian immigrants.[7] It is therefore vital that the Government prevents such a violation of human rights from happening again.

Measures to improve the wellbeing of migrant workers contributing to the rebuilding of our economy will prove immaterial if the Government does not protect these workers once their task is complete. Hopefully, with further work, this policy can be the dawn of a new age of labour relations with our migrant workers.

[1] Nicholas Jones “Immigration rules changed to clear way for 5000 more Christchurch rebuild workers” The New Zealand Herald (New Zealand, 13 May 2015).
[2] Darrell M West “The Cost and Benefits of Immigration” (2011) 126 Political Science Quarterly 427.
[3] Michael Woodhouse “Immigration changes to support rebuild” (12 May 2015) Beehive: The Official Website of the New Zealand Government .
[4] Lilijana Burcar “Capitalism and immigrant workers in Gary Paulsen’s Lawn Boy: Naturalization of exploitation” (2012) 4 Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures 37.
[5] Jeffrey S Passel and Michael Fix “Myths about Immigrants” (1994) 95 Foreign Policy 151.
[6] Migration for Employment Convention [120] UNTS 71 (entered into force 22 January 1952).
[7] Patrick Ongley and David Pearson “Post-1945 International Migration: New Zealand, Australia and Canada Compared” (1995) 29 International Migration Review 765.

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