Opinion // 08.08.2017 // Curated by Ed.

Slavery and Education in New Zealand

Today, Radio New Zealand’s John Gerritsen published a story about businesses selling jobs to international students.  Paying $20,000+ fees for employment, working for $5 an hour, ‘working free’ for 2 years… a variety of arrangements have been made to enable students to apply for residence.

In civilised, first-world societies, we are very good at using euphemisms for social ills we like to think we’re above. In this case, the phrases thrown around include “worker exploitation”, “volunteer workers”, “exploitative employment practices” and “breach of immigration and labour laws”.

Let’s call it what it is: slavery.

How did this happen?

So, how did slavery work its way into our society?  It’s part of a broader problem with our export education sector and dishonesty.

Last year, the NZ Herald ran a series on the uncomfortable relationship between New Zealand’s export education sector and visa fraud.  That is, students being enrolled in dodgy courses on the promise of part-time employment and a pathway to residence.  This latest development shows that the problem has metastasised in that in addition to the dodgy education front end, we’ve added slavery into the mix.  Policy settings across immigration and education are incubating scams which have many victims – international students, our own employment market and our good reputation.

International students add to the fabric of our society and our learning institutions. Diverse cultural perspectives add to the strength of learner communities and the richness of academic pursuits. In short, having them here is a good thing.

Once upon a time, they had to support themselves through their studies without working, and tuition fees were uniformly substantial. This limited the opportunity to study here to those with significant means and, some will argue, it meant we only welcomed the ‘elites’. There is truth in that but it also meant that we knew they were here for the learning opportunities we provide, that they were financially independent and less vulnerable to exploitation.

International students can now work up to 20 hours a week while they study. They can apply for further visas beyond that, putting them on a pathway to permanent residency. This has led to families literally mortgaging their assets to send someone over here to enrol in a cheap qualification with the hope of work, residency and paving the way for their loved ones to join them.  That hope of work now seems to include paying for a job.

This is what those fighting human trafficking would call “unsafe migration”. With limited financial resources and social support, they are vulnerable to being exploited – afraid of asserting their right to things like the minimum wage, holidays and a safe work environment.

What does it mean?

Terrible as that is, how does it affect Kiwis? Well, we have 70,000 young people who are not in employment, education or training (NEET). They are competing for jobs with people who are prepared to do just about anything, creating downward pressure on wages and employee expectations. Circumstances like these are what has unfairly given rise to anti-migrant sentiment around the world.

That said, New Zealand is known as one of the world’s most welcoming societies, ranked first for tolerance of immigrants in the Global Talent Competitiveness Index. Demographer Professor Paul Spoonley notes that about 80% of Kiwis see economic value in immigration and suggests that in Europe this outlook would be more like 35%-45%. But we would be foolish not to ask ourselves how our system settings are inhibiting or fostering anti-migrant sentiment. Our reputation as a welcoming society could be a casualty of failing to do so.

Finally, we have a pretty good education brand. We know we’re not the very best, but we’re regarded as a solid performer. How long will our brand survive if we continue to bring vulnerable students half way around the world with the promise of residency and churn them through ‘visa factories’ of low-quality qualifications?

What should we do?

Let’s provide a learning experience of such quality that it is enough on its own for people to want to study here – not with the add-on promise of residency. Let’s not nurture resentment against foreigners by making things harder for our own struggling students and young people to find work with fair pay. Let’s ensure our society sends a strong message that we will not tolerate those who seek to profit from the misery of others. In looking to grow the export education sector’s $4.28bn contribution to the economy, let’s do it honestly. Let’s look after the students.

As for those modern-day slave owners?  Imprison the directors of the companies engaging in these practices, seize all their assets and, where applicable, deport them.  Slavery has no place here.  Not now, not ever.