Labour under fire over foreign student volunteer scheme

Former Labour official Matt McCarten's 'Campaign for Change' has come under fire. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

Labour has come under fire for “industrial grade hypocrisy”, after foreign students in New Zealand as part of an election scheme linked to the party complained about their poor living conditions.

The party’s head office has stepped in to fix the problems but says it cannot not yet confirm with total certainty whether it has complied with employment and immigration laws.

The Campaign for Change, launched in June, was intended to encourage more people to enrol to vote.

It proclaimed to be “non-partisan”, but was run by former Labour official Matt McCarten and had ties to Auckland Labour and some unions.

"The Campaign for Change will channel the energy and passion of New Zealanders who want to see a change of Government this election,” McCarten said in a statement launching the scheme.

According to Politik, which broke the story, around 85 overseas students involved had held several meetings with Labour officials to complain about their accommodation at Auckland’s Awataha Marae, including cramped dormitories, a broken shower, bathroom cupboards hanging off their hinges and unfinished construction work.

They were also reportedly disappointed with the quality of the programme, billed as an education opportunity with talks from top Labour names, but in reality “not much more than political campaign drudge work”.

When the students spoke to Labour officials about their concerns during the weekend, they were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements, Politik reported.

'Industrial strength hypocrisy'

National Party campaign chairman Steven Joyce said Labour had to explain how it could justify “exploiting” international students for its election campaign while it was also speaking out against international education providers.

“This is truly appalling behaviour both for its lack of human decency and industrial strength hypocrisy," Joyce said.

“If the allegations are correct, Labour has brought international students to New Zealand on false pretences, failed to look after them, and failed to meet their obligations to the students in the most basic way, while at the same time campaigning against exploitation of migrants.”

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse did not know whether Immigration NZ or MBIE’s labour inspectorate was investigating the issue, but believed Labour had serious questions to answer about possible breaches.

Woodhouse said the students would be allowed to undertake the work if they were on working holiday visas, as Labour believed, but there were still questions about whether there had been breaches of employment law.

“What I am aware of is similar schemes to this have been investigated very seriously by the labour inspectorate because it is work masquerading as voluntary work, and I think that is also a question that should be asked of the Labour Party.”

Providing services for food and board counted as work under employment law, he said.

“Regardless of what visa they’re on, there are certainly questions about the nature of the work they’re doing and whether that meets the definition of employment.”

Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox was scathing of the news, saying Labour had “duped” the young volunteers into coming to New Zealand.

“We all need volunteers, we all need people to come and work on our campaigns, but we don’t do it by misleading them and putting them up in poor substandard accommodation...

“That is slave labour, not free labour, and they should be ashamed of themselves.”

Party covering costs

Labour Party general secretary Andrew Kirton said the party’s head office was not involved in running the programme, but stepped in and took over when it became aware of problems.

Students who wanted to stay on would be moved around the country and based with local campaign teams, while the party would cover the cost of changing flights for those who wanted to return home early.

“They’re a great bunch of young people - they’re great, talented and energetic and they want to campaign and get involved, so this is frustrating for them and it’s obviously frustrating for us but our main priority is making sure they’re sorted out and that’s why we’ve taken over.”

Kirton understood the students were in the country on working holiday visas, but could not confirm if that was the case or if the scheme had broken any employment or immigration laws.

“Certainly as we took over on Tuesday, we’ve been working to sort out Matt McCarten’s programme and we’ll continue to do that.”

There would be a “non-zero” cost to fixing the problems, but he did not yet know how much the bill would be or how it would be paid for. However, Labour would comply with all election spending regulations.

He would not comment on whether the party had been hypocritical, saying: “I’m not going to go anywhere near that.”

In a written statement to media, McCarten said he had set up the Campaign for Change programme after his contract with Labour ended in May.

“The programme was supported by the Labour Party in Auckland, however I led and managed it.”

McCarten said the campaign was “extremely popular and quickly became oversubscribed”. The scale of the programme is now greater than I can manage, and I am aware of issues that this has caused.”

Labour’s head office had contacted him earlier this week, asking to take over the programme so it could deal with the problems. He had agreed and was no longer involved.

“My intention from the start has been to give young people a positive experience in the New Zealand political system and I regret that the programme has not lived up to this promise for all volunteers,” McCarten said.