Indian and Chinese MPs in the Labour Caucus after 2017 elections: Andrew Little

Indian and Chinese MPs in the Labour Caucus after 2017 elections: Andrew Little

(caption for the above picture: Labour leader Andrew Little meeting the Filipino community in Christchurch)

- other ethnicities may find representation too as Labour leader commits to making his Party reflective of today's New Zealand by next year

What he said:

  • Calling Labour anti-migrants is desperation on part of the PM
  •  Labour has no magic number for immigration; depends on circumstances
  • The Government has turned a blind eye to what private education institutes are doing
  • We will put the onus back on education institutes
  • Co-ethnic exploitation is an issue; more labour inspectors are needed
  • Crime can be prevented by having more frontline police officers from ethnic communities

The PM in an earlier interview to this newspaper had said that Labour is getting increasingly anti-migrants because of low ratings. What is your response to that?

Little: It’s a stupid thing to say. It pictures, if anything, a desperation on part of the Prime Minister. Labour’s history in government is one of welcoming people from other parts of the world. When Helen Clark was the Prime Minister, for example, we took refugees here. You go back even further in history and it is the Labour Government that has opened the doors to people in need from overseas. And under my leadership, we are the party that has said we need to double the refugee quota because we need to be putting out the hand of friendship to those in a desperate need around the world.

See, we’re a country built on immigration. We always will be dependent on immigration to meet the full range of skills that we need to have. What we have said is that the surge of migration we've had in the last two or three years, there are some mismatches opening up in terms of the skills that are coming in and the skills that we need. And we do need to manage that more carefully.

But that’s not anti-immigration. That’s actually making sure that the promise we make to the ones who come here and who make a life here is one we can fulfil. And we can’t do that if we’re saying we’ll take any number any time. We have overcrowded cities. We can’t provide the jobs. We can’t provide the support that people need. So I totally reject the PM's assertion, which I think is a cheap view to be honest and a sad level of politics.

The Government just this week announced some tweaking in immigration policies. Do you think this came as a result of sustained pressure from the Opposition?

Little: Yes I think they have reacted because a lot of people share our view, and again, it’s not an anti-immigrant view. It's making sure that we get the needs right. But here’s the funny thing. The decision that they’ve made doesn’t reflect the issue that we’ve raised, which is the labour market issue. The government’s own officials have told, from treasury to reserve bank, and we've also had for example the head of the ANZ bank saying that there are some issues in some areas of the labour market because of immigrants coming in and being recruited to semi skilled roles. It is having an impact on wages and jobs. But the government’s announcement this week doesn't even address that. So it looks, if you want to say, cheap politics. The government announcement gives an appearance of doing something but it's not fixing the real problem.

So what is the magic number of migrants for Labour?

Little: I don’t think there’s a magic number. What you have to look at from one year to the next is, and working with the private sector and business and employers, to say ok what do we anticipate the needs are, where are the skills shortages, what are we making sure we do and work it out. You evaluate it from one period to next, there is no magic number. There will be times when we will need more people, when the economy is taking off. There will be times when economy slows down and we say we have to slow down our immigration numbers. There is no set number. You have to gauge it from one year to the next.

Let’s take one example. In terms of unemployment, we have roughly 15,500 people who describe themselves as labourers who are out of work in New Zealand. Not spread across New Zealand, but the bulk of them would be in the top half of North Island. Last year we issued 6,500 work visas to people who describe themselves as labourers. That's the kind of mismatch I’m talking about. You would have probably reduced the number of work visas by a good three or four thousand and get the unemployed New Zealanders to those roles.

But that's just one work category, the same will apply to others. That’s why I say it’s difficult to say at any one time that this is the right number because that number will change depending upon where the need is. Right now we know we have building boom going on. We are having difficulty getting the right skilled labourers to do that work. So we may justify increasing the number of skilled carpenters to be able to do that work. We just have to work with the industry from one year to the next to get the number right.

What then you have to say about the PM saying that “young New Zealandrs don’t want to work and do drugs”?

Little: I think it’s pretty cruel to say this actually. They are a government that has given up on getting young New Zealanders who are out of work at the moment into work. We had Bill English earlier this year describing them as “pretty damn hopeless”. You have John Key now on two occasions including last couple of weeks describing them as “on drugs” and “not working”. My view is that for young people, in particular, those people between 18-23 years old, they’ve got their whole working life ahead of them. If they’re not in work now or in training or getting an apprenticeship, we actually ought to be working harder to get them there. Because I don’t want them to be permanently on benefit. Because that’s just a cost to all of us. My view strongly is they might be out of work now and some of them need a bit of extra motivation. But I’d rather be making that effort, to get them into jobs now because they’ve got 30-40 years of their work life ahead of them. I want them to contribute.

Moving to political representation now. Why doesn't the Labour Party has any MPs from ethnic communities?

Little: I can’t say to you anything other than I think it is an embarrassment that as a big leading party we don't have ethnic representation. It’s not how it was. We were the first party to have an Indian MP, the first party to have a Chinese MP. But we don’t have them now.

Frankly, we had one of the worst results we’ve had in 2014. I’ve made it a personal commitment of mine to have, after the 2017 elections, ethnic representation in the Labour Party Caucus. We will have an Indian MP. We’ll have a Chinese MP. Maybe we’ll have more than just those two, I don’t know. But I’m determined that we have a Caucus that is as reflective and as representative of New Zealand as it possibly can be, and at the moment we fall short.

That is your commitment for the next general elections?

Little: Yes

In reply to the PM's interview, you wrote a piece for this newspaper asking “why is the Government letting migrants get exploited". Can you please elaborate on that?

Little: There’s two things we know. We get stories from newly arrived immigrants. They get work and they find that they are in a very exploitative situation and often there’s a reluctance to do anything about it because they’re fearful of putting their visas at risk, fearful of upsetting others in their community, so they put up.

We’ve heard some horrendous stories.

Cases that have actually gone to court where migrant workers have been paid way under the minimum wage, they get their passports withheld, all that sort of stuff.

More recently we’ve seen this situation with students; under student visa you’re allowed to work for a period of 20 hours a week. We’ve seen students coming here on student visas, it turns out that the paperwork that has been done back in their home country has been fraud, there’s been mismanagement. And they’re being told you’re here on a visa that has been obtained under fraudulent circumstances, so you have to go back. For some of them that’s at the very end of their course and they’re being told effectively they’re the ones responsible.

Now I’ve spoken to many of them, they’ve told me their stories. They’re not the ones responsible. It’s the agents back in the home countries, it’s the institutions here who have recruited them through agents. And none of them are ever held responsible. That’s what we need to correct. I think there's more that the government can do to make sure that the students who were recruited here under student visas aren’t exploited in the way they clearly are now.

So you mean to say that the Government knows what is happening but is doing nothing?

Little: They open the doors and they’ve added this provision where the students can work 20 hours a week and they knew that wouldmean more students will come to study here. They’ve been told by their officials what the risks were around that. They were told by the officials earlier this year. There were real doubts about the integrity of some of the documentation accompanying these students. They’ve known this. But this government says look we’re the champions of export education, it’s a huge revenue earner, big foreign exchange earner for us. They’ve got these largely private education institutions who are saying they’ve got businesses built around it. They know this is going on but they’ve turned a blind eye and refuse to do anything about it and that’s wrong.

Why are you then not putting pressure on the Government to tackle the issue of international students?

Little: Yes in fact we already have. That’s why about a month or so ago I met many of the students affected by the allegations of fraud and so on. We put the call out and said you can’t just hold the students liable here. Give them amnesty, let them finish their courses. There are two things the government must do. First, tighten up their own oversight of the agents back in these students’ home countries. And secondly, put the onus back on the institutions here who are gaining the benefit of those students and their fees and tell them if they have a student who’s documentation is obtained by fraud, the institution must give the student a refund before they go home. You see how quickly those institutions actually step up and make sure that the documentation is proper.

You’ll make that assertion. But if Government doesn’t do it, will you do it if you come to power next year?

Little: Yes, certainly, we will do it. We will take action to make sure that the agents who are processing the documentation, are also registered and properly vetted. So we do our best to weed out the worst of them. We’ll also put the onus back on the institutions and say to them if you’re going to recruit students from overseas, it’s well and good, but if something goes wrong we’re going to come to you and you’ve got to sort it out. You’ve got to use your over-sighting to make sure the student you’re recruiting are here for bona fide purposes.

Lots of such cases of migrant exploitation are of co-ethnic nature. How does Labour propose to stop it?

Little: We know that and you've only got to look at the cases that have gone public, the cases that have gone to the Employment Relations Authority. Many of them are ethnic business owners exploiting their own. That’s wrong too. But I think the best we can do there is to make sure that our authorities, our labour inspectorate is properly resourced and geared up enough to deal with exploitation wherever it is and whoever is doing it.

We also have a proposal in relation to the whole labour market and employment relations field that if you’re an employer that has repeated transgressions against our employment laws – like you’re not paying the correct wages, making unlawful deductions, mistreating people – then after a certain number we have to put a level of inspection and oversight into your business. We don’t want businesses to think that the only way they can make a profit is by exploiting other people.

Winston Peters says that those who do co-ethnic exploitation should be deported. What your take?

Little: I don’t want to go that far. I think the main thing is that we want managers and business owners who may be not used to our laws and our values, to have somebody alongside them saying - hey you want to run your business, you need to run it well. Yes, you want to make profit of course you do, but you can’t do that by exploiting workers. So we will train you on how to do workforce management properly in accordance with New Zealand laws. We want people from overseas make a commitment here, they want to invest here, have a business here, great, excellent, we want that. But we, as a country, have always expected minimum standards to apply, basic standards of treatment, fair treatment for people. That's got to be the way to go ahead.

What about the increasing cases of crimes against ethnic groups? Dairy robberies etc.? The issue is worrying the communities so much that it has led to the formation of a new political party – New Zealand People's Party – with crime as their main election plank.

Little: Yes, it's an important issue. That’s why yesterday I announced our commitment in our first term - so in the three year period to lift front-line police numbers by a thousand. The ratio of police to population has deteriorated quite a bit in the last eight years. It was roughly 1 to 488 in 2008. Today it’s 1 to 528. The proposal I announced gets us to about 1 to 500 which over long run is roughly where we have been. That also means, we can start to go back to making sure that there are front line police officers in the community.

One of the biggest complaints I get particularly from the small business owners from the suburbs of bigger cities. They often tell me that earlier we used to have a police station down the road or around the corner. And just the fact that the police officers will walk up and down every now and then meant we didn’t have the kind of burglaries and robberies that we’re having now.

That’s the stuff that makes a difference, Just the sheer police presence can act as a deterrent. That’s what I want to see us getting back to, that we have enough police numbers where we can maintain their physical presence again, and give business owners the sense that actually the streets are secure and safe for them and they should be able to run their business with a level of confidence that they’re not going to be attacked by people coming and trying to rip them off.

Do you also plan to have more police personnel from ethnic communities?

Little: Yes, definitely. A bit like the Labour Caucus, that is, as reflective and representative of the population they're policing. And I know from dealing with some of the police officers in Auckland, ethnic police officers and the communities, just what a huge difference that makes when the community see police officers who come from their communities and their countries. It just gives them a sense that I can communicate at ease, talking and giving information in a way you don’t necessarily do with a pakeha police officer. So I think that’s important. I congratulated the police actually on the fact that they have a growing level of diversity in their ranks and I’m definitely keen to see that continue.

The good thing here is that New Zealand Police has a good reputation. They’re not seen just when people are in trouble, they’re seen as helpers, protectors, and we want that culture to continue. And that is best achieved when you have as diverse a police force as possible.

You say the Government needs to put money into all this. Labour inspectors, more police officers etc. But this week news came that economy is doing well and we have a budget surplus. How do explain this mismatch then?

Little: That’s why the next year is going to be so important. There is a choice here. We know that there is a freeze on school funding, there’s a four year freeze on police numbers, health budget has been cut in real terms. But now we’re seeing a 1.8 billion dollar six months surplus. The price we’re paying for that is that all these services are being underfunded.

And the price we pay for that particular things like school and health, is that those are the things that give people the opportunity. If we run down our schools, have inferior education - and we are seeing our international rankings go backwards - that means we end up producing a generation who find it harder to get work. So I’m saying the choice we’ve got is we invest in people, or we can have these surpluses.

What I’d be strongly advocating for is that we need to reinstate the investment we haven’t been doing for the last few years back into people, creating opportunity, giving people a chance. The thing that New Zealand is known for is we do give people a chance, and yes not everybody takes it, and we can be criticised for that. But we’ve been very good at levelling the playing field through education, through good health and giving people a chance to get ahead in life and stand on their own two feet.

Finally, the South Island is not as diverse as its northern counterpart, which sometimes may lead to migrants not developing a sense of belonging here even after years of living. What, in your opinion, should happen here so that people feel more at home?

Little: There's more we can do to celebrate those ethnic communities, celebrate their occasions and celebrations. I lived in Auckland myself 20 years ago I didn’t even know of Diwali then. I didn’t know of the various kind of celebrations. They are now just routine. And you do them now and thousands of people turn up, and not just from those communities but pakeha folks as well. The councils can help and maybe the Central Government as well. Lets encourage those celebrations, those expressions of diverse cultures that we all learn and respect, and appreciate because that’s actually what build cities and communities and strengthens communities. And I’m very keen to see more of that.

Can the local governments play a bigger role than what they have been doing?

Little: Yes. And some are already very committed to it. I know Lianne Dalziel. You hear her singing a Chinese love song. She’s totally committed to diversity and I think others Mayors needs to be as well. And it’s the appropriate thing for the councils to do - to reach out to communities, to integrate and make them feel at home. Bringing communities together isn’t about eroding or diluting things that are important to different ethnicities. Its understanding and celebrating and knowing and making that part of our rich culture as well.

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