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Will the 90-day work trial lead to further migrant exploitation?

above – Dennis Maga. photo credit / Aisha Ronquillo

By Ricky Matthew

AUCKLAND – It’s no secret that migrant exploitation is rampant in New Zealand, but according to a union spokesperson, another spanner has been thrown into the works by the National-led government when it announced the extension of the 90-day trial period to all employers.

Back in April 2011 all new employees were subject to a 90-day trial period which was enshrined in the Employment Relations Act 2000. This allowed an employer to terminate an employment relationship within 90 days without reason and without risk.

Later in 2017 the newly appointed Labour, Greens and NZ-First coalition government amended the 90-day trial provision in the law. Under that government, only small businesses with fewer than 20 employees were able to utilise the tool called the ’90-day trial’ to dismiss new employees without reason.

However, under the new National-led government, starting from 23rd December 2023, that tool is now available to all employers, regardless of size.

In an interview with Migrant News, Dennis Maga, the General Secretary of the First Union came out strongly against the newly introduced law. “We’re disappointed that the priority of this government is to change all those employment relations provisions that were introduced by the previous government. I don’t see the benefit of bringing back 90-day trial period.”

According to the unions, the new law is likely to change the dynamics between the employer and migrant employees, granting the employer more power.

“The 90-day trial period is not a mechanism to make hiring of workers easier,” observes Maga. “This only makes it easier for businesses to fire workers with impunity. Additionally, this trial period would disadvantage migrant workers by allowing bad employers to exploit them such as forcing them to work long hours or perform work outside their job description in exchange for work visa sponsorship, otherwise they could be sent home.”

Simon Bridges, Auckland Chamber of Commerce

To answer that question if the 90-day trials will benefit both employers and employees, Migrant News sought the view of Simon Bridges, CEO of the Auckland Chamber of Commerce.

“Extending 90-day trial periods to all employers will allow employers to give people a chance who might not have otherwise stacked up on paper. Given the considerable investment of time and resources in hiring, it’s crucial for businesses to ensure they find the perfect fit for their needs.

“It’s a pro-employment, pro-business, pro-Kiwi policy aimed at getting people into jobs, growing businesses, and supporting our economy.”

The discussion moved to why thwarting migrant exploitation wasn’t higher on the agenda of the new government.

“Our Union is campaigning for modern slavery legislation because the exploitation starts from the country of origin,” said a spokesperson from Migrante Aotearoa. “Some employers are fully aware about how they can exploit migrants once they are in New Zealand. They know that these markets have cheap labour, so they always threaten them to be deported or to cancel their sponsorship of visa.

“The system is being criticized by different organisations. If we can move away from the sponsorship system, then we can move to an open work visa system like what happened in the Canterbury rebuild.

“What we’ve seen in our Union is a significant decrease of exploitation amongst Filipino workers. But there is a significant increase of exploitation of South Asians, particularly from Bangladesh, India and even Singapore. Migrants who are recruited from these countries by exploitative employers are being housed in unsatisfactory arrangements.”

The community group ‘Migrante Aotearoa’ seeks to improve the rights and welfare of Filipinos and other migrants in New Zealand. The group pays special attention to changes in employer-employee relations and frequently holds seminars to educate migrant workers on their rights in the workplace.

Forced labour is the dominant form of migrant exploitation in New Zealand. Construction and horticulture are among the list of industries most involved in such exploitation.

According to Carl Knight, a representative of Immigration New Zealand, exploited migrants are brought in from third world countries, paying huge sums of money for the opportunity to work in New Zealand, only to be bonded to the debt and subject to slave-like work conditions.

With forced labour and migrant exploitation remaining a significant issue in New Zealand and employers violating labour laws, time will tell whether the new 90-day trial changes will worsen the situation.

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