A recent TV ONE News investigation into alleged illegal wages at a Chinese restaurant turned desperate job-seeking Asians, especially Chinese students and new migrants, into a media event. But National MP Dr Jian Yang believes the Chinese community will not overreact over the issue.
Report – By Phyliss Hao Zhang
Illegal wages recently became the hot topic in New Zealand mainstream media after a One News television inquiry revealed allegations over the employment of migrants at a Chinese restaurant.
Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson pledged she would investigate this and promised action.
But National Party MP Dr Jian Yang said while most of the Chinese community was hard working and law abiding, they also wanted the allegations to be investigated.
The mainstream media news about underpaid workers aroused controversy in the Chinese community and “hot” discussions online at Skykiwi [in Chinese], largest Chinese website in New Zealand.
Some Chinese students shared their working experiences online.
They said they had worked for some local Kiwi companies, and seldom got paid less than the minimum wage.
Regarding the Labour Minister’s promised actions on underpaid migrants, many Chinese people welcomed the government investigation into these cases as this reflected on the image of the Chinese community in New Zealand.
On the other hand, most of commentators online thought those small-business owners should take the responsibility for these cases, not the workers.
A 26-year-old Chinese student, who did not wish to be named, worked in a Chinese restaurant after he arrived in New Zealand in 2010.
This was his first part time job here.
“At first it was hard for me to find a part time job as I was not confident in my English. So a friend introduced a job in a Chinese restaurant for me,” he said.
“I think it suited me at that stage because I was provided free lunch and dinner there and I could earn some money, although the pay is less than the minimum wage.
“I don’t like the ‘illegal worker’ label attached to us.”
He worked with other Chinese students in the restaurant for several months, but after he started the bachelor degree study in at university, he quit the job.
He said: “Now I hope I can find a job that suits my major. Obviously the job in the Chinese restaurant is not suitable for me as I want to earn more experience related to my studying.
“Personally, I think the job in the Chinese restaurant is a kind of ‘cash work’ which has been going on for years.”
Fengzhi Niu, a 29-year-old Chinese here, has lived in Auckland for 10 years.
He said he also worked as an underpaid worker a long time ago.
“At that time I was just a student here. I need to earn money to pay for my living cost, but I was not confident in my English. So working for small-business owners and getting paid less than the minimum wage was my only choice then,” he said.
Now Niu works for a Kiwi company which makes him feel good.
“I will never choose the underpaid work anymore. If you have a chance to get paid legally, why not?”
Niu said underpaid workers are all disadvantaged groups, although they worked hard.
“They suffer due to the lack of attention from the government. It is hard to prohibit illegal wages, but something should be done to protect workers who are being exploited.”
Unite union national director Mike Treen said the cases about the migrant workers uncovered by the TV One News investigation were not uncommon problems.
“Personally I heard some stories about underpaid workers before. Overseas students work for some small-business owners, and do extra hours for free,” he said.
“Sometimes they need to do double shifts, but get limited wages. Some students only get $5 to $6 an hour.”
Although these cases are easily uncovered by media, they are hard to get changed, according to Treen.
Treen suggested that underpaid workers should get together and start to do something.
‘Join the union’
“They should have the confidence to stand up for their own rights. It is possible to stand up. Or they can join the union so that we can help them protect their legitimate rights,” said Treen.
Diana Beeby, a 26-year-old Kiwi and a postgraduate student at AUT, said she was concerned about the experiences of migrant workers.
“Underpaid migrants are forced into taking those jobs, and this may be due to reluctance by New Zealanders to hire people who speak English as a second language or seem ‘foreign’.
“This situation leaves migrant workers with few options apart from taking positions with people who have exploited them,” she said.
Beeby is not satisfied with some local mainstream media news coverage about these cases.
“The current reports only detail one or two complaints at a time. They should go into an in-depth reporting about the rates of Auckland-based migrant labour.
“More should be done for migrant workers by the government to uphold proper wages and conditions.”
Phyliss Hao Zhang is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student at AUT University.