Three men are crammed into this freezing motel room in Blenheim. They share a single set of drawers.

BLENHEIM, (STUFF NZ) — Migrant horticulture workers in New Zealand are being housed six men to a room, charged $150 (US$93) a week to sleep in freezing and damp conditions which see them fall sick repeatedly, and then refused paid sick leave.

One worker living in a crowded motel unit in Blenheim became so unwell he was coughing blood, but his boss initially refused to take him to the doctor, telling him to go to The Warehouse and buy paracetamol instead.

“The boss told us he did not take sickness seriously unless someone needed to go to the hospital,” the man’s co-worker said. Stuff agreed to call the man “Matthew” instead of his real name because he feared he would be punished for speaking out.

“We ended up taking [our friend] home and treating him with some boiled leaves from the lemon bush in the garden,” Matthew said. “A lot of the boys have been sick, but if we don’t work, we don’t get any pay, so we work through.”

Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Saunoamaali’i Karanina Sumeo​ travelled to Blenheim incognito to investigate the workers’ living and employment conditions in July.

Her investigation found the sick worker, who was from Vanuatu, continued to have transport costs deducted from his pay while he was unwell – even though he wasn’t catching the van to work at the vineyard each day.

It also found evidence of multiple groups of Pacific Island workers living in substandard housing, including garages, run-down flats, or bulk units where they have little freedom or privacy.

One female worker told investigators she was naked in the shower in her appointed accommodation when a male manager walked in on her, leaving her embarrassed and shaken.

The housing was provided under the Recognised Seasonal Employers (RSE) scheme, which allows for 16,000 workers to come from the islands to New Zealand each year to work for the $10 billion (US$6.2 billion) horticulture industry.

Conditions are so bad, some of the workers say they are desperate to go home, but have been unable because they are in debt to their employers for flights, work clothing, or tools. Some have so many deductions from their pay each week, they end up with as little as $100 (US$62).

Others say they need to keep working to send money back to their families at home, but want better conditions or employers.

However, the workers are unable to find new jobs because their visas tie them to a single horticulture business for their seven-month stint in New Zealand.

Sumeo says the workers’ treatment amounts to human rights violations.

She wrote to Minister of Employment Relations and Workforce Safety Michael Wood with her findings, requesting an urgent meeting about the RSE scheme.

“In particular, it seems that the scheme allows for what can only be described as debt bondage, where salary deductions are being used as a means to financially control workers and thus to remove agency from them,” Sumeo wrote.

Sumeo said she witnessed multiple human rights violations, including the lack of freedom of movement (the workers had curfews), freedom of association (the workers were threatened against joining unions) and the right to culture (the workers aren’t allowed to drink kava, and are sometimes expected to work instead of going to church).

“The right to health in particular is of great concern … workers can find themselves very unwell but directed to be at work; living in substandard, overpriced bedrooms for months on end.”

Sumeo said one house she visited, provided by Laconic Ltd, had ripped carpet and leaks in the ceilings, with a bucket to catch the water. It was “like being in a cooler”, she said, but the heaters had been confiscated. It was a five-bedroom house with two to three men in each room, and was collecting $2380 rent each week.

Another site had 11 men in the house and three in the garage. The garage had been insulated but still had the metal door, had no bathroom, and it was freezing, Sumeo said.

The third site, the motel, provided by Vine Strength Ltd, had five men per two-room unit. The workers were only provided panel heaters, which they weren’t allowed to leave on in the day, and provided minimal heat. The Amalgamated Workers Union New Zealand (AWUNZ) had brought in extra blankets for the men, because it was only 10 degrees inside, and they were suffering.

“Many of the homes that I saw raise questions as to whether they would pass the healthy homes requirement,” Sumeo told Stuff. “I saw minimum attention by accommodation providers and employers to ensuring care and dignity, in return for the huge monetary return and subservience of the men. Economic exploitation was blatant.”

She said she was writing to the minister after both her team and the union representing the workers had previously raised concerns with the Ministry of Business, Immigration and Employment (MBIE), with no success.

“In each instance, the labour inspectors who visited the sites found no issue with the pay and living conditions, contrary to my views,” she said.

Amalgamated Workers Union New Zealand (AWUNZ) spokesperson Michelle Johnstone said the workers were desperate for help, but didn’t have anywhere to turn.

“They’re bonded. They don’t seem to have any avenue if they want to go home,” she said. “In my opinion, the whole visa set-up needs to be re-done, so they can have more freedom, and be treated like any other worker.”

Johnstone said the workers were fearful that if they spoke out, they would not be allowed back to New Zealand. Consequently, they were being underpaid, and on top of that, charged for extras like personal protective equipment (PPE) that should be company costs – such as wet weather gear or boots.

“God knows how many thousands they paid when they didn’t have to,” she said. “It’s unacceptable.”

National Manager of the Labour Inspectorate Stu Lumsden said the inspectorate, part of the MBIE, would be working with Immigration New Zealand on the concerns Sumeo had raised.

He said any information provided by the RSE workers would be protected so that they were not penalised for having done so, and the complaints would be formally investigated.

Employment Relations and Workplace Safety Minister Michael Wood’s office said the minister intended to meet with Sumeo “in the coming weeks”.

Neither office had responded to Sumeo until Stuff raised questions about her investigation on Friday.

Stuff spoke to some of the contractors who own the houses, who said they had to be signed off by the labour inspectorate before they were tenanted.

Vine Strength owner Ajay Gaur, who has previously been fined by the Employment Relations Authority for failing to properly pay his workers, said the workers’ complaints were unnecessary.

“They’re just creating from the little issues to the big issue,” he said. “Every day they have new excuses, someone is sick, someone isn’t coming. Because they don’t want to work, they’re saying they’re having a bad experience.”

Gaur said he did take the sick man who was coughing blood to the doctor.

Matthew, the worker from Vanuatu who spoke to Stuff, said Gaur only took him to the doctor after the union stepped in. The doctor told the man he should have been treated much earlier, and needed to take three weeks to recover, the worker said.

Matthew said he and his nine workers had finally arranged to fly out on 16 August, after getting the labour department in Vanuatu involved. They first requested to leave in June, but still had debts to repay at that point.

He had been grateful for the opportunity to work in New Zealand, he said, but had found it a harsh contrast to his much more positive time in Australia on a similar scheme.

“Given my experience here, I have a very heavy heart as I feel like we have not been treated fairly or like human beings,” he said…. PACNEWS

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