September 18, 2014

Rebuilding from the Ashes: Institutional Racism and the Christchurch Rebuild

Editors note: I recently attended the Human Rights Commission’s annual Diversity Forum and was shocked to learn of the conditions of Filipino workers involved in the Christchurch rebuild. In the session I attended it was compared to modern slavery. Although not the usual focus of this blog, we felt it was important to share this story of what is happening in our neighbourhood.

New Zealand is a society that prides itself on its openness to ethnic diversity and its commitment to liberal democratic principles of freedom and equality. Many national and international surveys, including ones conducted by the Asia New Zealand Foundation, have noted a consistent theme: we are an open and inclusive nation in principle, but often fall short of our ideals in specific situations; and where particular immigrant groups are concerned, New Zealanders favour white immigrants over immigrants of other ethnic or racial origins. Asians are consistently received with less warmth than whites in New Zealand, and consistently report more experiences of prejudice and discrimination than other groups. The most frequently reported instances are a) in public places, where hostile or aversive racism commonly takes the form of verbal denigration by a stranger, and b) in the workplace, where subtle, or symbolic racism in job seeking and career advancement leads Asian migrants to have on average the lowest wages of any cultural grouping in New Zealand according to the 2006 census.

More detailed national representative data from social psychology has shown a North-South gradient in openness to diversity, where the North Island is both more welcoming of new migrants than the South Island, and more supportive of Māori. This North-South gradient is accompanied by an urban-rural gradient, where urban areas are more open to cultural diversity than people in rural areas. The vast majority of Asian migrants in recent years have settled in Auckland, so the demographics of immigrant-based cultural diversity in New Zealand fit hand-in-glove with the spatial geography of its attitudes.

Therefore, the nature and extent of the Christchurch rebuild is potentially a game-changer. It is rare when a city is rebuilt from ground up, and projections of the number of overseas foreign workers (OFW) required ranges from 17,000 to 40,000 when reconstruction efforts peak in a few years. Currently, there are about 2000 OFWs in Christchurch on temporary work visas. Most of these are Filipinos, and unlike the majority of Filipinos permanently resident in New Zealand (who frequently work in IT or nursing, and are above the national average in education levels), these temporary workers in the construction industry mostly fall in the category of unskilled. In addition, Filipino workers are being hired in large numbers to fill labour shortages in the agricultural sector in the South Island, often working in the sheep and dairy industries, isolated from cities and regions where the locals may be more sympathetic to OFWs. Whereas the civil society of Auckland is almost being “purpose-built” to evolve into New Zealand’s multicultural “diversity engine”, Christchurch and the deep South are not so well-equipped, and yet economics are forcing the region’s hand. There are not nearly enough local workers to satisfy demand.

This has opened up a space for the exploitation of migrant labour that has not existed before, and the on-going nature of this exploitation was highlighted in multiple sessions of the Human Rights Commission’s Diversity Forum in Christchurch August 24-25, 2014. In her keynote address, Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel warned of “zero tolerance” towards poor treatment of migrant workers and discrimination in workforce practices. But two breakout sessions highlighted the difficulties in making this promise a reality. These sessions confirmed mass media accounts of immigrant labour exploitation. Most serious among the abuses were complaints of excessive fees charged by recruitment agencies especially in the Philippines of up to $20,000 NZD (where the annual wage is less than $3000 USD), and high interest repayments on such loans to pay for the fees leading to long term indentured servitude (also known as bonded labour). Also common were bait and switches where the contract signed with the recruitment agency does not match the contracted terms provided by the employer in NZ, lack of jobs on arrival, the employer illegally asking for money back from the workers, and over-crowded and expensive accommodation.

In terms of solutions, Migrante Aotearoa (a Filipino NGO dedicated to workers rights) invited speakers from UNIMEG (FIRST Union’s Union Network of Migrants) and MBIE’s Christchurch Labour Inspectorate to propose a Charter of Employee Obligations. In this scheme, employers, trade unions, and both national and local government would collaborate to define a voluntary charter of obligations to workers, and rely on collaborative practices to uphold these standards.

Victoria University of Wellington’s Center for Applied Cross-Cultural Research’s (CACR) session proposed a more diverse, but complementary set of solutions that could be implemented more quickly. Wellington Women Walk for Peace (www4peace.org.nz) co-founder Belinda Bonzon Liu proposed setting up a website to receive anonymous but registered complaints and stories from migrant workers leading to crowd-sourced ratings of recruitment and employment agencies becoming widely available. Cavell Leitch’s immigration law specialist Nicola Appleton proposed 1) extending the duration of temporary work visas from 1 to 2 years, 2) make supporting migrants easier for employers who do the right thing (e..g, extending the accredited employer scheme, and providing same day services for simple cases with Immigration New Zealand), 3) tougher law enforcement against business operators who regularly fail to check the law or fail to adhere to the law, 4) further civil society support for migrants who are exploited, and 5) recognising and encouraging competent immigration lawyers and advisors.

The extent of New Zealand’s engagement with Asia has been greatly extended in an unforeseen way by the Christchurch rebuild. Costs will be high if we as a nation fail to recognize the challenge before us: to adhere to New Zealand’s liberal democratic values, and not allow unscrupulous businessmen both at home and abroad to exploit migrant labour in a way that one presenter described as “modern day slavery”. I am optimistic that NZ’s civil society can mobilize and collaborate with local and national government to improve the character labour relations to allow Christchurch to rise like a multicultural phoenix from the proverbial ashes of the rebuild, and am committed with CACR to offer any supportive research and advocacy that might help in this mission.

Professor James H. Liu, Co-Director Center for Applied Cross-Cultural Research, School of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington

 

 

 

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