Are we all in this together: equally?

Tod Cooper
TINZ Director
Focus on Procurement

We hear a lot about being in this together. Why? Because a virus threatens us all. It does not discriminate, and neither should we.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a public health emergency – but it is far more. It is an economic crisis. A social crisis. And a human crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis. People and their rights must be front and centre.

António Guterres, Secretary-General, United Nations

Human rights under threat

Bottling up all the issues Guterres has spoken about, leads to a recipe for vulnerability, for exploitation - for a global human rights disaster. The Walk Free Foundation's Protecting People in a Pandemic Report calls it a perfect storm for exploitation.

We need to consider how we continue to respond to this pandemic in the weeks, months and years ahead, ensuring that the rights of people are protected.

Never in our lifetimes have there been so many vulnerable New Zealanders because of:

  • the situation COVID-19 has put them under
  • the lack of alternative employment opportunities available to them
  • travel restrictions that limit employment and social norms.

Recovery requires responsibility and accountability

As New Zealand adapts to a little more freedom under COVID-19 Alert Level 3, we are already seeing instances of workers being put at risk by employers not acting in good faith. Examples include: implementing insufficient (and potentially unlawful) health measures and contact tracing; not providing adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) to their staff and customers; and having disregard for, or inadequate controls over social distancing. This is only the beginning - times are tough!

Businesses have also fallen on hard times, and all these measures impact on profit margins, and organisations' abilities to bounce back quickly. Those that are lucky enough to recommence operations under Alert level 3 and subsequent Level 2, must take that opportunity with the responsibility and accountability that comes with it. We need to enforce this - the rule of law here is critical.

Sadly, there have been a number of recent interviews across the media with workers who have been subjected to unnecessary virus exposure. They have been forced into that situation, often with little choice. Their financial situations, like many of us, drive them to accept unlawful conditions that put them, their families, and their communities at risk. Should they just be grateful to have their job back - and tolerate such risk?

Do we think it is acceptable to exploit the vulnerable situation of others, for our own personal gain? No! Remember most will not have a safety net:

  • There are few if any alternative jobs available. Roles which normally attracted dozens of applications, are now attracting hundreds
  • Workers cannot readily travel between cities or countries at the moment
  • Many of our hospitality and primary sector workers are here on a temporary working visa.

Safeguards for migrants

New Zealand is heavily reliant on migrant workers, with a large proportion on a temporary visa. These are our most vulnerable workers. When they run out of money, they have little to no recourse to other sources of finance. Many may be forced to become unlawful workers as there are simply no welfare systems to support them and no ability to return home with closed borders or available and affordable flights. So what are their options?

As they face the reality of poverty, this by definition makes them extremely vulnerable to exploitation from unscrupulous employers who put profits before human rights. In turn, these employers will undercut competition and further impact other businesses trying their best to recover within the rules of law.

Workers' unions such as FIRST, E TU, UNITE and PSA seem to be active in support of their members and provide good general advice in this area. In addition, the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) has all but completed a review on Temporary Migrant Worker Exploitation (due in early 2020). However, COVID-19 has been a game changer.

So, while the virus does not discriminate, the resultant social, economic, and human rights impacts certainly does. Inequality is of considerable concern where there are no alternatives.

Triple paradox

We live in unprecedented times, and this requires unprecedented actions to address unprecedented consequences.

Let us not allow a health disaster to turn into a humanitarian disaster. Our Government and our people must be transparent, responsive, accountable, and responsible. It is not in our DNA to ignore someone in need. New Zealanders need to show the tangata whenua values of manaakitanga and aroha to those in our care, now more than ever, no matter the cost.

To report migrant exploitation:

  • call the MBIE Service Centre on 0800 20 90 20.
  • anonymously, call Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or fill out a form on .

For help or support

  • PSA Freephone 0508 367 772
  • Unite 0800 2 UNITE (0800 286 483) or direct dial (09) 845 2132
  • 0800 1 UNION (0800 186 466)
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