Illegal migrant worker contracts 'tip of the iceberg'

The Immigration Minister says it's "astounding" dozens of construction workers have been brought in from overseas, only to find themselves sitting around fishing and playing guitar.

Sixteen Filipino carpenters, welders and steel fixers who were brought here by AWF - one of the country's biggest labour hire firms - told Newshub they've been here for three months, but have done as little as two days' work.

They're still getting paid, but only for 30 hours a week. After rent and other expenses - including tools some of them have never had to use - there's little left over.

"We live [on] nothing," one man said. "We can't even send money to the Philippines. That's the great problem."

First Union general secretary Dennis Maga said they came to New Zealand with "big dreams, hoping to contribute to the New Zealand building industry".

"We have to actually make use of their skills," he told The AM Show on Thursday. "They would like to be productive and they would like to earn more than 30 hours' a week. [It's not enough] to pay for their rent, food and sending some back home."

Auckland is undergoing a construction boom, and the Government's KiwiBuild scheme will is getting underway.

"There is work in Auckland, there are projects in Auckland," said Mr Maga.

"They are proud, skilled workers. They would like to say, 'I'm a carpenter'... but right now it's hard for them to say that 'I'm actually just fishing'."

Dennis Maga of First Union.
Dennis Maga of First Union. Photo credit: The AM Show

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway told The AM Show he'd be meeting with officials Thursday morning to discuss the workers' situation.

"I'm certainly keen to see what can be done to get these guys working, absolutely, because we all know there is a lot of work in construction that needs to be done.

"It's astounding to me, the idea that people have come out here with skills in the construction sector and can't find work... if we can get these guys working, I'd love to find a way."

The workers are bound to AWF, and Immigration NZ would have to get involved if they were to be allowed to sign up with another employer.

"These labour hire companies don't allow them to work for another company," said Mr Maga. "How can Immigration NZ allow a labour company to employ foreign workers, but there is no job for them?"

Another problem the union has with the contracts is they appear to contain an illegal clause, banning the workers from engaging in any union activity - and Mr Maga suspects AWF isn't the only company allegedly taking advantage of migrants.

"We believe this is the tip of the iceberg. I think some labour hire companies are operating like cowboys."

Mr Lees-Galloway said the Labour Inspectorate is investigating these claims.

He said in the next few weeks he'll be releasing proposed changes to the immigration system for consultation..

AWF chief executive Simon Bennett said he would be investigating how the illegal clause ended up in the contracts.