Wellington and Government have turned the corner towards Christmas and is sprinting towards the finish line with extra gusto this year, given the coming announcement of a new cabinet on Sunday and the jockeying of the players ahead of next year's election.
Craig Foss joined Sam Lotu-liga on the sidelines yesterday by pulling out of the race to be in Bill English's ministry, acknowledging it was time to pull the pin and return home to the Hawkes Bay after a discussion with English.
He had said on Monday he wanted to stay on past the next election, which he was already pre-selected for, but changed his mind after that chat with the new Prime Minister this week.
"I've had a chat with Bill and (after) more reflection about what else was going on in my life, and what I want to do and deciding on balance I am keen to move on from politics and move back home," he said when asked what had changed since Monday.
Foss wasn't the only one though. Green MPs Catherine Delahunty and Steffan Browning announced this morning they would also not stand at the next election.
Widespread abuse of temporary workers documented
Aside from the usual Christmas cheer and sneer, the Government came under attack over its record on housing and child poverty, and on migrant abuse.
Auckland University's Christina Stringer yesterday published a 78 page report titled Worker Exploitation in New Zealand: A Troubling Landscape that was based on 105 interviews with temporary migrant workers.
"This research found that non-compliance with employment legislation was common particularly in the horticulture and hospitality industries. Further there were troubling accounts of poor treatment of employees," Stringer wrote.
She documented excessive working hours without breaks, non-payment or underpayment of wages with temporary migrants not being paid for hours worked or earning as little as $4 to $5 an hour, temporary migrants being controlled by threats of being reported to Immigration New Zealand if they complain, deduction of income taxes from wages but the taxes not being paid to the Inland Revenue, non-payment of holiday pay and no formal employment contracts.
"Many temporary migrants tolerate exploitation so they can qualify for permanent residency or because they were coerced and/or deceived by their employer. They may also tolerate the situation because of power imbalances (perceived or actual) or because of limited options available to them," she wrote.
"Some pay their own salaries to obtain residency. Worker exploitation is widespread in terms of industry sectors and/or visa categories, with much of it remaining hidden. The findings of this report, which highlight and uncover areas of significant concern, deserve urgent attention. The industries and sectors mentioned here contribute significantly to the New Zealand economy – some might say they are its lifeblood - so findings of migrant worker exploitation in these areas puts New Zealand’s international reputation at risk."
New Zealand has 54 labour inspectors to cover 2.622 million workers, which is less than third of the ratio that applies in Australia.
Iain Lees Galloway questioned Michael Woodhouse in Parliament on the report, asking if migrant worker abuse was pervasive.
"The vast majority of employers in New Zealand are law-abiding and treat their employers fairly, and the labour inspectorate is working very hard to stamp out those employers whose practices do not meet minimum employment standards," Woodhouse replied.
Woodhouse downplays the report's findings
"What is important to consider about that report is that although it draws conclusions that migrant exploitation is pervasive and widespread—and, indeed, it is a very thorough empirical study—the method of gaining those stories was to go and ask people who have said they have been exploited," he said.
"One hundred and five people did so and told their stories. That is concerning, but given the tens of thousands of overseas workers—maybe more than that—during the period of those told stories, I do not believe that that constitutes pervasive or widespread exploitation."
He rejected the suggestion that migrant exploitation was having a chilling effect on wages and conditions.
"There is no evidence that the exploitation is widespread or that it would lead to the suppression of wages. Rather than be driven by hyperbole, I need to be driven by the data, and the data says that there has been a 3.1% increase in wages year on year in those industries since this Government came to office," he said.
The Reserve Bank noted the moderating effect of wages of high net migration in its November Monetary Policy Statement.
"Migrant inflows will also add to labour supply, having a moderating influence on wage growth," it forecast on page 29.
The Human Rights Commission was less willing to downplay the report.
Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Jackie Blue said the report provided compelling evidence of industries and specific vulnerable demographics that experienced elevated levels of exploitation.
“For too long, we have had the blinkers on when it comes to worker exploitation in New Zealand. It’s appalling that in 2016, we are seeing cases that are verging on slave labour. The current systems, that facilitate the exploitation and abuse of people, need to be changed," Blue said.
“This report, in addition to the country’s first human trafficking conviction earlier this year, is confirmation that grave human rights abuses are taking place in the employment of particularly migrants and that steps need to be immediately taken to address the issue," she said.
“We agree with the overall intention of the recommendations included in the report, which is that a coordinated inter-agency response is needed from the government. More research and better monitoring systems need to be put in place to track human trafficking and worker exploitation in New Zealand.
Winston Peters pointed to the report as "disgrace for National" to add to an "expanding list of shame."
“Behind all the spin and PR garbage flowing out of the Beehive, under National this country has become a sadder, harder place and now we are getting work place conditions that resemble those found in the mean backstreets of Kolkata, Manila, and Beijing," Peters said.
“The government want a cheap subservient workforce to prop up the economy and with migrant workers they’ve got it. They’re happy to turn a blind eye to the rotten practices that are going on, both by some foreign and Kiwi employers," he said.
“How can the government deny this when they have a ‘Dad’s Army’ Labour Inspectorate with the pitiful number of 54 officers for the entire country to combat the problem."
Denise Roche said the report showed the Government was not doing enough to protect workers.
“This report echoes what we have known for a long time; National’s refusal to properly look after people on temporary work visas is having serious consequences,” said Roche.
“Exploitation and abuse of migrant workers has been an open secret for a long time, but National refuses to take the necessary steps to prevent further abuses happening, by ensuring amnesty for people who come forward. We cannot reasonably expect people to report abuse and exploitation to the authorities if they face being deported as a result," she said.
“If this Government wants to prevent this kind of abuse from getting worse, they need to properly resource the labour inspectorate to ensure that dodgy employers are held accountable. At present, nearly one in five investigations into suspected breaches of minimum employment standards are not completed within six months of the complaint being made."
Labour Inspectorate action
Meanwhile, MBIE announced yesterday a South Auckland labour contracting firm had been ordered to pay NZ$428,164 in arrears and penalties for serious breaches of employment law after a Labour Inspectorate investigation.
Binde Enterprises Limited was ordered to pay NZ$220,000 in penalties and NZ$208,184 in arrears to its 75 employees by the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) for failing to pay minimum wage, provide holiday pay, or keep accurate wage or time records.
“The Labour Inspectorate has zero tolerance for labour contractors who fail to meet the clear standards set out in New Zealand employment law,” says Labour Inspectorate Regional Manager Kevin Finnegan.
“Taking advantage of vulnerable workers such as migrants, who may not know what their rights are in New Zealand, is taken very seriously by both the Inspectorate and Immigration New Zealand."
Govt to restore State Highway 1
Meanwhile, Simon Bridges announced this morning that Cabinet had agreed to reinstate the coastal road and rail route to Kaikoura and would provide additional funding to speed up the process.
"The existing State Highway 1 and rail corridor along the coastal route to the north and south of Kaikoura will be rebuilt, with additional improvements to increase safety and resilience," he said, adding the current estimate was the cost would be NZ$1.4 billion to NZ$2 billion and that limited access could be restored within 12 months.
Bridges said an Order in Council was currently being prepared that would accelerate the reinstatement of State Highway 1 north and south of Kaikoura, which was possible after emergency legislation was passed through Parliament last week.
Parliamentary exchange of the day:
Andrew Little: Given that he now has four ambitious amigos, three resigning Ministers, and two brooding rivals, who is going to rescue Nick Smith from the pear tree?
Bill English: The basic difference is this: we have 59 members of Parliament, and that is a great deal more than that member has. It does not matter what presents he gets for Christmas—that is basically not going to change.
Quote of the day:
Craig Foss on whether other ministers might decide to jump before being pushed on Sunday:
"I don't know. There's a saying in finance that says 'the trend is your friend' and who knows?"
Tweet of the day:
"To be fair Craig Foss didn't even fall on his sword. The sword was just there and he tripped and fell."
Parliamentary song of the year:
Marama Fox (featuring Te Ururoa Flavell on ukelele) singing Santa Baby.
Have a great day.