Kiwi firm wants to clean up migrant exploitation

August 23, 2017

Kiwi firm wants to clean up migrant exploitation

Migrant workers need to be protected, says Mike Mulholland, the general manager of human resources at City Cleaning Services.

A New Zealand cleaning company is trying to expunge exploitation of migrant workers.

Mike Mulholland, general manager of human resources at City Cleaning Services, said most Kiwis assumed exploitation didn’t occur in their country, at least not in businesses run by New Zealanders.

But according to him, that’s wrong.

He said it just happened in a way we might not expect.

Labour-intensive industries like construction, hospitality, and cleaning relied on migrant workers because there weren’t enough local workers to fill the vacancies.

“When we’re faced with a workforce who doesn’t speak our language, the temptation is to put in a supervisor who does speak their language. This person is likely also to be a migrant from that community.”

Unfortunatly, said Mr Mulholland, the supervisor may treat the workers in a way they would back in their home countries.

“This could range from gross sexual harassment, to wages being docked, to health-and-safety issues being ignored.

“As long as we don’t have any operational problems, we don’t know because it all happens under the radar. It’s all conducted in whatever the language happens to be.

“We could be all unwittingly complicit.”

Dr Christina Stringer, who works at the University of Auckland and last year wrote a report called Worker exploitation in New Zealand: a troubling landscape, said migrant workers were particularly vulnerable, and not just because they didn’t speak English.

“For many of them, their parents went into significant debt to send them here. So there’s a sense of responsibility by the student not to let the parents down. To be able to earn the money to pay back their parents.

“And I think some of them are perhaps a little bit naïve or not aware of New Zealand law and their rights here in New Zealand.”

And this, Mr Mulholland said, could make them vulnerable to exploitation from their supervisors.

After discovering the potential for this kind of exploitation at CCS, Mr Mulholland decided to do something about it.

“We’ve done the most obvious thing which is to translate a clear explanation of not just the rules but what New Zealand workplace culture is all about.”

These explanations took the form of a multilingual booklet that was given to all employees.

It was written in English, Hindi, and Mandarin, and included explanations on workers' rights, health-and-safety expectations, and whistleblowing.

Dr Stringer thought the booklets were a great initiative.

“[The workers] have the facts before them in written form and they’re not relying on somebody else to tell them.

“Because sometimes, that somebody else telling them can actually be exploitative.”

Mr Mulholland isn’t worried if the booklets expose corrupt supervisors at his company.

“We believe we have a responsibility to the cleaners because they’re working for us and they deserve protection.”

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