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


Increasing migration to New Zealand is indicative of globalisation's influence on working arrangements and employment conditions. Although the "compression of time and space" (Harvey, 2000: 16) has opened borders and increased opportunity for many, it has also exacerbated worker vulnerability for a sizeable proportion of workers. One subset of such workers are migrants. Migrant workers often obtain precarious work through community connections or labour contractors; some have language difficulties; and a significant proportion of these migrants work in sectors with relatively high accident rates. It may be assumed, therefore, that they are likely to be more vulnerable to work accidents and injuries (Benach, Muntaner, Delclos, Menéndez & Ronquillo, 2011). Initially, we explore who are categorised as vulnerable workers using Sargeant and Tucker's 2009 framework; concluding that, for many, protection is largely rhetoric not reality. Then we ask three questions: What are the existing protections for New Zealand's vulnerable workers? Secondly, why are these mechanisms ineffective? Finally, what can be done to improve the protection of such vulnerable workers?

All New Zealand workers are protected by the state through public policy, monitoring, and enforcement with varying efficacy. While recent legislative amendments acknowledge some new features of vulnerability, on their own, they are recognised as insufficient to ensure compliance from employers and employees. As a result of public sector restructuring and budgetary constraints, there is also a lack of enforcement mechanisms to iterate legislative oversight. Moreover, many insecure and precarious workers will not advance entitlement claims due to employment dependency.

Most additional protections are likely, in the short-term, to come from collective worker initiatives and, to a more limited extent, by unions' collective labour actions. These are illustrated through case studies of new radical trade unions such as Unite and First's Union Network of Migrants, with a focus on membership ethnicity and new organisational devices, such as social media, communication campaigns and leadership development. Such features are contrasted with a non-union but demonstratively successful collective, the Filipino Dairy Workers in New Zealand (Inc.) of Ashburton in dairy farming, and of the role of the Canterbury Indonesian Society (Inc.) in the 'rescue' and repatriation of the Indonesian crew of the Oyang 75. Finally, discussion of the Recognised Seasonal Employers (RSE) Scheme is presented to query whether this model is a successful response to migrant exploitation and could offer an appropriate foundation for other primary industries.


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. …

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