A story of worker exploitation

Worker exploitation

Joanne (not her real name) has been living and working in a home on Rarotonga for the last six months. (This feature story is was first published by the Cook Islands News.)

She gets up at 6.30am every morning to prepare breakfast for her employer’s children, sets out their clothes, makes their lunches and then gets them off to school.

The baby needs changing and needs to be bathed and then, when she has a few minutes to herself, she prepares a simple meal for herself before she tackles the other jobs that her employer has set out for her.

Her working day can end anywhere between 7.00am and 11 at night depending on whether the employer decides to go out socialising, which is often.

By the time 7pm comes around she is feeling the effects of her long day but the dishes still have to be done, as do the other chores that have been allocated to her.

She is shouted at or abused and sometimes prodded or hit. She has had things thrown at her if her employer feels in a bad mood or when things are not going well for her employer.

She has to bear the brunt of her employer’s poor behaviour, poor communication skills and because of tiredness.

The dream of lifting herself from her poverty trap in her native country is quickly turning into a nightmare in this so-called island paradise.

She, like thousands and thousands of her people, are desperate to get out of their country to better themselves and their families left behind and they will work any job independent of whether they can do it or not, such is their desperation.

Many of her people pose as employment agents for workers like her either in her own country or in other countries that need foreign workers.

There are also many like her who have married locals and because of their language skills, knowledge of theirs and the local culture use these skills to bring in more like themselves and one would think that they treat them as family.

A recent article in a New Zealand publication shows that often as not, they are preyed upon by the very people you might think would protect and look after them in a foreign country.

The exorbitant fees are just the tip of the iceberg for those in the feeding chain, cashing in on the plight of these foreign workers.

What they charge could feed a family for many years, but workers apply by the thousands and sign up for huge loan fees to work in a myriad of jobs that are on offer in overseas countries.

The money she earns will pay off these loan sharks and provide her and her family with a lifestyle and education they can only dream about back in their cash-strapped economies and overcrowded cities and rural poverty.

They are sold on a dream and because many of them do not speak English sufficiently or understand legal documents, they are prey to the unscrupulous actions of some agents who are in collusion with Rarotongan employers.

Some Rarotongan employers do not carry out due diligence with these agents and get sold a crock and this can lead to abuse of the foreign worker through no particular fault of their own.

Employers fudge the contracts of employment by changing conditions of the contract at a whim to suit their own selfish needs and in total disregard of the worker’s needs or the fact that their foreign worker may have other plans.

Sometimes the employer deducts money at source for spurious reasons and does not pay overtime rates even when the law states they must.

No PAYE, no CINSF deducted or matched by the employer.

They disregard her day off by forcing or coercing her to return to work.

By the time Joanne looks at her pay slip (if she gets one), she has been working for less than $2 per hour.

Joanne has not seen her passport since she arrived as her employer has kept it for ‘safe keeping’ and she does not know if she has a bona fide work permit, despite asking her employer for it.

If she wants to leave her employer, the passport is withheld to keep her here and there are frightening scenes of this happening in industry not just in home employment.

People like Joanne may or may not be getting the award wage and they may or may not be working a 40-hour week.

It depends on the contract and the way it is written, which is often aimed at extracting the most benefit for the employer.

However, the employer is only able to get away with these draconian contracts because there is very little oversight once people like her come into the country.

A 40 hour working week for Joanne is a nonsense because she works six days a week from sunup to sundown and sometimes more.

Her average working hours are between 72 and 90, with only the 40 hours being paid.

There is no overtime.

These are conditions that are akin to modern day slavery and it is quite a common scenario in this Christian country we call the Cook Islands.

Immigration struggles with foreign worker complaints and does not have the resources or budget or capacity to follow up on each and every employer who has a foreign worker.

The only time that they do act is when an employer wants their foreign worker to be repatriated and spins a yarn to Immigration to get them out of the country, claiming they are bad employees and should be blacklisted.

Immigration does not have the capacity to follow up on the employer’s allegations and thus only hears one side of the story and in many cases an injustice is perpetrated on a foreign worker.

In its defence, Immigraiton has been collaborating with the internal affairs ministry to provide an inter-agency response to allegations against foreign workers by Rarotongan employers.

But it is a challenge getting some immigration officials to accept that in many cases the foreign employee may be the aggrieved party and not the employer.

Joanne, like many of the workers from her country, only wants a fair go from her Cook Islands employers.

These people want to be treated with dignity and fairness, but they are not getting this from some employers.

They don’t want to be treated like slaves or children, or abused or coerced, or work or live in slave-like conditions, they want what you and I want.

Is it too hard to be provided with a roof over your head, be paid what you are worth, to have food in your kopu, to be able to educate your children and to be able to take rest and recreation and to socialise without fear of being told off?

These are basic human rights which are being abused and or manipulated by some local employers.

A final story: A traveller was left beaten and robbed by the wayside.

People of means and status in the community walked by and paid him no heed. A person of little means stopped and gave aid and support to this traveller despite them being of different cultures and faith.

This is what you/we need to be doing.

Regardless of who the people of means and status in our community are, we, like the Good Samaritan, need to step up and take these local employers aside and tell them this is not the Cook Islands way.

Workers, if they abuse you, that tells you what sort of people they are: greedy, seedy and definitely not needy. And most importantly, not what you would consider as a friend.

First published by Cook Islands News.
Republished with permission.

Additional reading

News category: Features.

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