Labour under fire for 'sweat shop' student scheme

There are calls for Immigration NZ to investigate a Labour-linked election campaign which used unpaid labour in the guise of an education programme.

More than 80 overseas students have been doing unpaid "drudge work", and living in a cramped Auckland marae without a working shower, reports political blog Politik.

They were brought here to experience what it's like to run a real election campaign.

Some quit and others have reportedly been too afraid to complain, fearing the scheme would be cancelled. The situation allegedly came to a head last weekend, with Labour's head office stepping in to sort it out. 

Some of the students have now been billeted with Labour Party members across the country, Politik reports.

The group, Campaign for Change NZ, was being run by former Labour chief of staff Matt McCarten. At its launch last week, Mr McCarten said the "non-partisan" campaign would focus on getting "young people, workers in low-paid occupations, as well as Māori, Pacifika, and other ethnic communities" to the ballot box.

He has since stepped aside, saying the scheme was "extremely popular and quickly became oversubscribed".

"Earlier this week the Labour Party head office contacted me about these issues and requested to take the programme over so that it could resolve them," said Mr McCarten.

"I have agreed to this and am no longer involved in the programme.

"My intention from the start has been to give young people a positive experience in the New Zealand political system and I regret that the programme has not lived up to this promise for all volunteers."

Mr McCarten until recently ran Labour's Auckland office. Labour leader Andrew Little on Thursday morning declined to comment on the allegations, calling it a party matter, but is expected to talk about it to media later in the afternoon. Newshub has also reached out to Labour's general secretary Andrew Kirton, who told Politik the scheme had "issues with capacity".

Awataha Marae declined to comment.

'Immigrant labour'

Rivals ACT called the campaign a "sweat shop filled with immigrant labour".

"I cannot believe the Labour Party's do as we say, not as we do attitude. This is a new low for hypocrisy, even for them," ACT leader David Seymour said.

"Who would believe in Labour's promised crackdown on cheap student labour when Labour are one of the worst offenders in the country?"

Mr McCarten said the students working on behalf of Labour did so voluntarily.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters said his party had an "army" of New Zealanders working for them, as well as immigrants.

"If they brought them in to run their campaign, what's wrong with New Zealanders?" he asked Newshub.

"It means they can't get New Zealanders working for them - contrast to us, we've got an army of them coming. New Zealanders, Kiwis that is, and new immigrants as well."

The wharenui can seat 150 people, according to the Awataha website. There is room for an additional 50 people in its conference room.

Promised lectures from the likes of Andrew Little, Jacinda Ardern and even former UNDP head Helen Clark might now take place over the internet rather than in person, Mr Kirton said.

The marae declined to comment, saying it was a matter for Campaign for Change NZ and Labour to deal with.

Campaign for Change NZ is modelled on similar schemes run by the Democratic and Labour parties in the US and UK.