It’s easy to think of slavery as an issue confined to the past, and something that couldn’t possibly exist in modern-day New Zealand. But that’s a misconception, one which University of Auckland Business School’s Christina Stringer is fighting.
Slavery. The more I came across that word in preparation for the conversation that lies behind this piece, the more the barbaric fact of slavery as we understand it from the history books loomed into view of my mind’s eye. Half a second later, I would catch myself.
As University of Auckland Business School associate professor Christina Stringer, from the Centre for Research on Modern Slavery points out, in 2021 the International Labour Organisation, in conjunction with international human rights organisation Walk Free, estimated there were 49.6 million people living in slavery at any one point in time. Slavery couldn’t be more of a contemporary problem.
“Modern slavery” is what Stringer calls an “umbrella term”, with a “whole spectrum of seriousness of abuse”. Essentially, as the Walk Free website puts it, “it refers to situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power.” And according to that organisation, Aotearoa accounted for 8,000 of those nearly 50 million victims, although Stringer herself expresses what she calls a “hesitation with numbers – because we’re talking in New Zealand about a very vulnerable population, a very hidden population.”
Hidden, but in plain sight. Even after 13 years of research in this field, Stringer says it’s “very hard for me to get a sense of the extent to which this is happening”. She name-checks the industries most reliant on migrant workers – agriculture, horticulture, tourism, hospitality and retail – as the sectors of the economy where these abuses are most prevalent, and also shares an anecdote about why it can be so difficult to spot.
One interviewee was working in a dairy, forced into hours far longer than was legal, six or seven days a week, and paid much less than what he was entitled. He was being monitored via CCTV, harassed via telephone by his employer for every perceived infraction, not permitted even a chair to sit down on. But for anyone walking into that store, Stringer says, “you wouldn’t recognise any of this”. All that would register would be a man behind a counter passing you your change.
It was another industry’s hidden abuses that dictated this direction to Stringer’s career. Over a decade and a half ago, the then Ministry of Fisheries (now Ministry for Primary Industries) wanted to know how much of the fish caught in New Zealand was sent offshore for value-added processing. Stringer was contracted to that research, which she did – but in the course of it Stringer and her assistant “identified a business model in the foreign charter vessel sector that was based on slavery”.
So when, in 2011, 32 Indonesian fishermen alleging human rights abuses fled the Oyang 75 as it was docked in Lyttelton, it “opened the door for us to undertake that research”. The scholarship on the other side of that door in turn contributed to wide-ranging regulatory reform, with the resulting amendments to the Fisheries Act targeting labour abuses in the foreign charter vessel sector – the first time in 20 years legislation had been introduced to deal with the problem. Investigating migrant worker exploitation followed on behalf of the Human Trafficking Research Coalition, culminating in a 2016 report titled Worker Exploitation in New Zealand: A Troubling Landscape.
It is work that stays with you, she says. “There’s so much emotion in those interviews. You know, these are migrant workers. Rock bottom, some of them have been at rock bottom. There’s so much emotion: there’s sadness, there’s anger, there’s embarrassment, there’s trauma in those situations… These are workers who have been mentally, physically, some of them sexually abused.” Given those emotions, Stringer is always impressed that so many victims of human rights abuses are willing to speak to her about what they’ve been through. “Some have been on the verge of leaving New Zealand, but they want to make it better for those migrants that come behind them.”
It is a mechanism of migration – the recently introduced Accredited Employer Work Visa (AEWV) and the problems it has birthed – that have occupied much of Stringer’s research of late. The legislation came into effect in June 2022, replacing six former visa categories, ostensibly streamlining and simplifying the process. Companies looking to utilise the scheme must be accredited, but standard accreditation relies on the company’s declaration and publicly available information. It is “predicated on trust, and relies largely on declarations of those looking after their own interests”, as Stringer has written. And as she told me, “it opened the door to creative loopholes for people to take advantage of. There are always going to be wily operators who can suss out loopholes. Unfortunately, those were quite big.”
In August, the Herald reported that 164 accredited employers were being investigated by Immigration New Zealand; 115 migrants from India and Bangladesh were found living in six overcrowded and unsanitary houses across Auckland. Now-outgoing immigration minister Andrew Little ordered an urgent independent investigation.
When such cases hit the headlines, Stringer is always surprised with the incredulousness with which it is greeted, commentary along the lines of: “‘Oh, we didn’t know this happens in New Zealand.’ It does. And it’s been happening for forever. So this is nothing new.” But she’s also heartened by the fact of its discovery – and often, as she has realised through her research, at the good nature of the everyday New Zealanders who have helped uncover exploitation.
“You know, one of the migrant workers went to church and talked to a woman there who recognised immediately that the working conditions were appalling, and that the migrants were not being treated the way they should be. So this woman reported it and that opened the door to a human-trafficking trial. Sometimes it’s just the genuineness and the friendliness of [New Zealanders], without even recognising how much they help.”
That same well-meaning nature, Stringer says, can sometimes blind good people to the fact that bad things happen among them. It shouldn’t. “Slavery happens in New Zealand,” she says. “Without question, it happens.”