Christchurch Rebuild Workers Exploited

Jim Consedine

There is an old 3 bedroom house in Addington in Christchurch which has 12 Filipino migrant workers staying in it at a cost of $140 each. The total rent costs $1720 per week. All are skilled carpenters with work experience spread over many years in such countries as Japan, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. All twelve are married men with wives and a total of nearly 30 dependent children at home. The 60 year old house has been expanded to add one sun room, a lounge and two extra tiny bedrooms. Before leaving for New Zealand, each of these migrant workers had to sign a contract in the Philippines with their employer to remain in the house for 23 months.

The exorbitant cost of rental housing in Christchurch and the unavailability of suitable work and pay for many migrant workers is exploitation of the highest order. It is theft on a rather large scale and appears to be systemic within parts of the rebuild culture in Christchurch. Of course, not all employers exploit their workers. But more than enough do so. They should be held to account.

The Rebuild

As the rebuild of Christchurch got under way two years ago, many migrant workers flooded the city seeking employment. They came from a variety of countries including Ireland, South Africa, England, Scotland, Australia and the Philippines. All told, there is likely to be up to 20 000 migrant workers coming until the re-build is complete in about five years. The total rebuild cost is estimated to be $40 billion.

Central to the re-build project are the roles of migrant workers. They are vital to it. It cannot succeed without them. Already, all around the city they are to be seen – building, painting, tiling, labouring, doing construction on roads and bridges, re-building the infrastructure, clearing and planting trees and gardens, driving lorries and cement trucks, fixing the wiring. There is no encouragement for workers to join unions, despite the advantages this would bring. In fact, many employers are distinctly anti-union.

The largest migrant workforce has come from the Philippines. They are much valued for their energy, their dedication, their work skills and their loyalty. Filipino culture is deeply religious. It is often marked by a deference to authority and a respect for elders. Unfortunately, this deference has led to many being exploited by some unscrupulous employers.

Exploitation Exposed

Rental prices in old houses of between $900-$1400 per week are not uncommon. The Press recently highlighted cases of up to 12 men sharing a house, each paying significant rent. The newspaper focused on an organisation called World Changing, run by Phil Cooper, a former manager of Buildtech Holdings. World Changing owns 12 houses which it leases to the workforce of Buildtech Holdings at $130-$180 per week per person. Some houses have three workers to a room, though most don’t. Three Buildtech houses visited were poorly maintained, cold, some with quake damage and big cracks in the walls. (The Press, 19 July 2014). Cooper sees no need for union involvement, as his organisation ‘cares for all its workers needs’ as he told a workers’ meeting back in April.

In the TV3 television programme, 3rd Degree, 16 July 2014, a variety of mainly Filipino migrant workers were interviewed on camera. They discussed their status as migrant workers in Christchurch, their conditions of work and pay and their living situations. Many of them were living in substandard housing, sometimes with four and up to six people to a room. Each were paying around $150 per week for a bed, not a room. Sometimes their gear had to be stored in the same room in tiny cupboards or stashed away in a corner.

Many had paid up to 150,000 pesos (NZ$4000) to a recruitment agency in the Philippines. They had to borrow that money at exorbitant rates from money lenders. The money lenders then held the debt over the heads of their families back home. Hence the need to repay urgently or their families faced the prospect of having to sell their homes and move out.

The company most under fire in the programme was Tech 5, which its spokesmen, John Wyatt and Brett Bothma, said had hired 117 workers so far from the Philippines to work in the re-build of Christchurch. They ‘loaned’ the workers up to US$7700 (NZ$10700) in order to travel to New Zealand and set them up with tools and equipment. But this money had to be repaid. This meant that money desperately needed to support families at home and repay money lenders was not available until the company’s debt was met. It seems that Tech 5 has had first call on any subsequently wages that the workers accrue.

The directors were also confronted with the fact that the initial contract that workers signed before they left the Philippines was very general and lacking the specifics of the contract that they were asked to sign upon arrival in New Zealand. They replied that the contracts were currently under review.

Another company investigated was Moya Holdings, which had a staff of migrant workers numbering 14 workers. They too were charging $150 per week for a bed, leaving the workers struggling to make ends meet.

Leigh’s Construction, which employs many migrants, was also examined. Their managing director, Anthony Leigh, told 3rd Degree that they sent their own personnel to the Philippines to recruit. They paid all the costs (upfront) of that process, flew the workers out and set them up in a company owned and managed accommodation near Oxford, as well as equipping them with tools for work. The cost of the tools has to be repaid out of their wages. If the worker does not complete their fixed-term contract they must pay recruitment costs incurred, including medical exam, visa, flights and the cost of sending Leigh’s personnel to the Philippines to recruit.

The workers must live in the company-run accommodation for at least the first year of their employment. They each pay a rent of between $150 – $200 per week for shared rooms, which covers electricity, transport to and from work, and a chef to prepare meals. Food is an additional cost, around $50 per week. Wages for skilled workers range from $18 to $25-30 per hour. This set-up is very similar to the dormitory-type accommodation attached to so many factories in Asia, where workers are dependent on their employers for practically everything and are isolated through long hours of work, limited wages, no union representation and lack of transport options. These are conditions no Kiwi worker would tolerate. Why do foreign workers have to? Where is the Justice?

New Zealand has an enviable reputation as a country where people generally get a fair go in terms of employment and their living conditions. We hold and promote certain standards based on what is just and fair.

But there are plenty who don’t. They take the dominant ideology of corporate capitalism, of self-first and foremost, to a point where their own humanity is compromised and the corrosive values of greed and exploitation take over damaging everyone they deal with. This is clearly being displayed too often by some employers in the Christchurch rebuild. They are undermining New Zealand’s reputation as a just and fair society.

Any decent Government should be on top of this type of rort and be in a position not only to monitor what is going on but deal to those who rip-off working migrants. Clearly these issues are of little interest to the current Government who basically believe ‘the market’ will take care of such issues. It doesn’t. And it never will.

Pope Francis has been outspoken in his condemnation of corporate capitalism. He has many times warned that ‘the market’ left unregulated can never provide economic or social justice for all. He’s right, of course as all the evidence shows. But who is listening? Certainly not those employers who are thieving from their workers in Christchurch through high rentals and low wages and taking the food from the mouths of their families in the Philippines. They should be exposed and shamed.

Jim Consedine lives at the Thomas Merton CW and is the editor of The Common Good.

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