Abusive employers must face justice

From any point of view, there is justification for public outrage over an Indian entrepreneur who has been allegedly underpaying and overworking migrant workers at his chain of restaurants. According to some reports, the employer has been extracting about 70 hours of work from these disparate overseas workers, paying them just $265 per week. In public view and of course the law, both are wrong. Every worker in New Zealand is entitled to the prescribed minimum wage (currently $13.75 per hour) and work no more than 40 to 48 hours a week.

People of the Indian community, especially from India are angry, not only because their good image is tarnished by such unscrupulous elements, but also because it is inhuman to exploit labour. Many of them have said that we should name, shame and boycott them.

“We should not support any Indian business, be it a restaurant or a retail outlet if it does not pay its workers at least the prescribed minimum wage and provide appropriate environment, safety and security. There are at least 5000 businesses that are owned, managed or franchised by people of Indian origin in New Zealand and most of them are good employers. There are a few who bring down the image of the entire community,” they said.

The irony is almost all such exploiters were once labourers who worked their way up through hard work, hardship and poverty. They conveniently forget their impoverished and modest beginnings and ill-treat their employees – more so if the latter are here on work permits. They extract money from them for providing them jobs and keep them forever in subsistent conditions.

Although migrant workers do not enjoy free healthcare, free education for their children (if they are here) and other benefits afforded to citizens and permanent residents, they have the right to minimum wage and minimum working conditions. The Labour Department has the responsibility to ensure that company bosses, however big or small, comply with the laws in force and meet the minimum standards. The law is colour blind and does not differentiate between workers from India and other countries.

One solution, according to some, is to do away with migrant workforce for any and every job, and restrict entry only to professions in which demand is greater than supply. With unemployment figures not very encouraging, there may be a strong argument in favour of such a proposition. But that does not seem pragmatic; for, three are professions or skilled jobs in which there are few takers within the country.

Chefs and waiters in the restaurant trade are among the categories of workers whose import from other countries is imperative.

The best solution, according to most people is that businesses should be allowed to recruit workers from other countries but own the responsibility for their care. They should pay them decent wages enabling the workers to lead a life that is better than what it was in their home country, seek higher education, and return home someday to be with their kith and kin.

Immigration New Zealand has done well to encourage migrant workers to inform its officials of exploitation, abuse and any other irregularities, including perhaps non-payment or delayed payment of salaries. This should enable exploited workers to end their silence, inform the officials of their plight and hope to be recompensed. They need not fear of deportation, penalties and such other harsh outcomes, even if they had breached any immigration law or policy.

This is amnesty in a sense, which will guarantee their wellbeing.

Equally important, it will end the saga of unscrupulous employers.

The law should show no mercy when they are brought to justice.

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