Minister to consider Queenstown trial to fast track help for exploited migrant workers

by Lauren Pattemore - Feb 23, 2024

The Queenstown Citizens Advice Bureau is asking the immigration minister to trial a change in visa procedure in Queenstown aimed at better supporting migrant workers stuck with bad employers.

The social service provider has found itself supporting too many migrants exploited in the town while on accredited employer work visas (AEWV).

Queenstown CAB general manager Tracy Poole says their proposal would allow migrants with the visa and working in the hospitality and tourism sectors to change employers without going through an Immigration New Zealand process.

While there are safeguards in place already for these situations - including a new Migrant Exploitation Protection Work Visa - they can take time and money, which can be tough for workers away from home.

According to Ms Poole finalising all the paperwork to allow a worker to stay in the country and change employers isn't tricky, but it can take up to three months over busy periods.

"If you can find another AEWV that will take you on, you have to do a variation of conditions, and it's still money, there are still costs involved, and there's a bit of a process. We want to eliminate that."

She believes removing the requirement will benefit both migrant workers and employers in Queenstown.

"It gives the migrant freedom, and a sense of choice...It helps them enjoy being here in New Zealand."

It could also incentivise employers to treat their staff better and create a positive work environment, so that employees don't want to leave, she says.

The move by the CAB is supported by Hospitality New Zealand and the Queenstown Business Chamber of Commerce, and is being welcomed by Southland MP Joseph Mooney.

He says during the last parliamentary term, he found immigration, and particularly the AEWV, was a frequent issue of concern in the community.

"As National focuses on the 100-day plan, we have committed to improving the accredited employer work visa to focus the immigration system on attracting the workers and skills New Zealand needs.

"This submission adds some local context and suggestions to deliver this goal.”

Migrant worker tells story of feeling 'powerless'

One migrant who began working at a casual dining restaurant in the Queenstown CBD on an AEWV in January last year, says the bullying she experienced at her workplace not only made her feel stressed but also "caged" because she didn't know where else she could go.

She says some of her colleagues, not tied to the employer for any visa, simply left, and there was steady turnover of staff.

The bullying she experienced, which included name-calling and belittling, and being left to do all the front-of-house jobs by herself, affected her mental health to the point that her doctor assigned her two weeks of sick leave.

"It was all so illogical to me, that I started gaslighting myself and they were telling me I was a s**t person, so I thought, maybe I am a s**t person."

But, taking leave was only a respite and not an escape for the situation, exacerbated by the fact she was living in a staff house and feeling tormented by some of her colleagues at home too. 

She explains that as a migrant, it can feel difficult to speak up, even when you know you are being treated badly, and she felt "powerless".

"It is your word against someone else, who is a resident. When you are a migrant, everything is borrowed, and you feel like you're not good enough to ask people to respect your rights.

"The hunger to achieve your dreams is so big, so you just suck it up and say to yourself, 'It's going to get better'. But it doesn't."

Although during her first six months of employment, she says she “saw a lot of illegal things happening”, she first went to the Citizens Advice Bureau in June after she was only rostered 10 hours, and the limited income affected her livelihood - she couldn’t pay her bills and rent, or feed herself.

A condition of her AEWV is that she gets a minimum of 30 hours, and she found the CAB after googling her situation and where to get help.

The CAB sent her employer an anonymous email.

She now knows from her time with the CAB that it’s the employer’s responsibility to inform you of your rights, and the places you can get help, such as the Citizens Advice Bureau, but she wasn't informed of this when she started.

“It’s difficult when you come here, the only person you know is your employer…so if your employer says something is right you believe them."

She knows of others in Queenstown who have "run away" from their exploitative employers or left the country entirely. 

She says returning to an even more stressful work environment after her second bout of sick leave was the last straw, and she applied for the exploited migrant visa in December.

“I just wanted peace without being worried about being deported."

Her application for a different visa was accepted after three weeks, meaning she was able to leave the problem employer as her situation was deemed as exploitative by immigration staff. 

She tells Crux she is now doing a lot better after leaving the situation.

Originally from South America, the woman has been travelling, mainly to the United States and Spain, for the past ten years, but she decided to stay here after visiting her sister, who lives in Auckland.

She enjoyed how "green" New Zealand was. 

With the wounds still fresh, the migrant tells Crux she is shocked after travelling for so many years, that she was still allowed herself to be treated this way. 

She feels lucky to have so much support from the CAB and her doctor, and says that she was raised in a family that encourages asking for help.

After hearing about the CAB, she also signed up as a volunteer and began helping others. 

Read more: Process to freedom 'frustrating' for exploited Queenstown migrant workers

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