The Worker Protection (Migrant and other Employee) Bill was recently passed into law. The law is said to be a significant step toward ensuring the rights and well-being of migrant workers. The legislation is a crucial component of the Government’s broader initiative to combat various forms of labour exploitation, backed by a substantial $50 million fund over the span of four years.
The new law, which is expected to be enforced from January 6, 2024, makes amendments to the Immigration Act 2009, the Employment Relations Act 2000 and the Companies Act 1993. These updates create a penalty framework that is hoped to discourage employers more effectively from neglecting their responsibilities towards migrant workers.
What does this mean for employers?
Under this legislation, employers are legally obligated to adhere to requests from Labour Inspectors for information within 10 working days. This includes promptly providing any employment-related documents, such as the employees’ wage and time records, along with holiday and leave records. Employers are also responsible for ensuring that the terms and conditions of their migrant workers align with their visa requirements. Any inconsistencies in documentation with the terms and conditions will result in penalties.
The law change will also empower the High Court to disqualify a person from being a Director of a New Zealand company if they are convicted of exploitation of migrant or temporary workers under the Immigration Act 2009. This measure has been added to promote the idea that ethical conduct and responsibility at the highest level of the organisation are imperative in ensuring the welfare of workers.
Associate Minister of Workplace Relations and Safety, Priyanca Radhakrishnan, emphasised its role in addressing specific issues at an early stage. The legislation’s focus on lower-level infringements is intended to prevent matters from escalating into more serious forms of exploitation. By targeting these early-stage breaches, the law intends to disrupt the cycle that often leads to severe violations of worker rights.
New infringement offences will allow Labour Inspectors and Immigration Officers to issue an infringement notice for lower-level non-compliance. For example, when an employer fails to provide requested documents within a reasonable timeframe. The government says that introducing infringement offences will ensure that offending is dealt with before it becomes more serious.
In the past, Immigration Officers were limited to pursuing non-compliance cases solely through a criminal prosecution. This process is often sluggish and time-consuming. However, with the law change, Immigration Officers now have the potential to expedite and simplify the process by addressing non-compliant cases.
While the expectation for employers to maintain accurate records has always existed, the new development involves oversight from two regulatory bodies. It is intended that this will demand heightened diligence, particularly in industries with a significant number of migrant workers, to ensure strict compliance.
Why these changes are more important than ever
Recent research by Kantar Public for the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment regarding migrant workers and employer mindsets, revealed that about a third of migrant workers are at risk of exploitation because they lack knowledge of their employment rights or because they feel trapped to accept any job for financial or visa reasons. The study also found that majority of employers are compliant with immigration and employment laws. However, not all are motivated to act in the best interests of their workers which indicates a high risk of slipping into exploitative behaviours. The new law will need to assist in these areas with some urgency, given the large number of seasonal migrant workers who will once again be needed to help short-staffed employers in certain industries. This recent development is part of a gradual expansion of the tools used to prevent migrant worker exploitation, which also now includes a dedicated 0800 helpline providing a direct channel to report any instances of exploitative behaviours by employers. Immigration New Zealand also recently introduced the Migrant Protection Visa, enabling migrants to escape exploitative situations and stay in New Zealand during the investigation process. The visa can be valid for up to 6 months.