Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations (Online)

Are Vulnerable Workers Really Protected in New Zealand?

Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations (Online)

Are Vulnerable Workers Really Protected in New Zealand?

Article excerpt


Changing employment conditions in New Zealand have resulted in certain groups of workers collecting at the periphery of the labour market. This work is typically located in tedious or hazardous positions with little regulation, supervision, and poor remuneration (Anderson, Lamare, & Hannif, 2011; Bauder, 2006; Jayaweera & Anderson, 2009). However, while these jobs are often relatively hidden, they are nonetheless vital to some of New Zealand's major export sectors. For a country which depends on its export industries for economic survival, to rely on such groups of marginalised, vulnerable, and often migrant workers is placing those industries at risk. Therefore, addressing the causes and remedies for vulnerable employment is a matter of considerable domestic importance.

Sargeant and Tucker (2009) group three risk factors contributing to migrant worker vulnerability:

* migration factors

* characteristics related to migrants and their country of origin

* receiving country conditions.

We define vulnerable workers following Ori and Sargeant (2013: xii) as

[...] someone working in an environment where the risk of being denied employment rights is high and who does not have the capacity or means to protect themselves from that abuse.

Standing's denizen (resident alien) category from 'The Precariat' (2010) also describes this group well: individuals who have a right to be in New Zealand, but who are expected to comply with specific visa requirements which may increase their vulnerability. These groups may be exposed to exploitation because they need work to generate income, but also to repay debt (often incurred to 'middlemen' or migration/education agents), and for remittances to family, friends and community: often the reason they migrated. Many migrant workers have visa validity conditional on employment, placing increased (and some would say unbalanced) power in the hands of their employers with the potential for exploitation and abuse.

What are the sectors where vulnerable work is found?

The makeup of the New Zealand economy is dominated by primary sector production where exports have reached record levels of $37.7 billion in 214 - about $11.3 billion more than previously forecast (Rae, 2014). With annual exports in excess of NZ $13.7 billion, the dairy industry is New Zealand's biggest export earner, accounting for more than 29 per cent by value of the country's merchandise exports (Dairy Companies Association of New Zealand, 2014, National Business Review, 2014). Horticultural products now account for eight per cent of New Zealand's total merchandise exports, and in the year to 30 June 2013, the horticulture industry generated more than $3.6 billion in export revenue, with the major products being wine ($1.2 billion) and kiwifruit ($934 million) (Plant and Food Research, 2014). If fishing ($1.3 billion) is added, these industries are responsible for $18.6 billion in exports or about a third of total merchandise exports (New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, 2014). Such significant economic impact is matched by influence on employment conditions in the primary sector.

Extant literature shows that the employment of migrant labour in the primary sector is increasingly widespread where non-standard, precarious employment and the use of unregulated, contingent labour is the norm (see McLaren, Firkin, Spoonley, Dupuis, de Bruin & Inkson, 2004; OCED, 2009). The greatest proportionate growth in migrant labour worldwide has been among low-skill, low-wage workers in sectors, such as caregiving, agriculture, hospitality, and food services, expanding in response to employer demand, but with little public debate (Faraday, 2012). With the primary production sector forming a significant part of the New Zealand economy and external trade, the sector's employment practices are paramount for continued increases in productivity as well as maintenance of external trading reputation (Tipples & Whatman, 2009). …

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