Exploitation: Access to justice is important for migrants
(pictured above: Ruth Burgess, Solicitor at Lexington Legal)
The Immigration Advisers Complaints and Disciplinary Tribunal in a recent judgement had found that Lindsay Charles Sparks, an immigration adviser with Business Immigration Limited (BIL), had engaged in "dishonest and misleading behaviour" in dealing with Edwin Balatbat, a Filipino migrant worker. While the case is “no hold” till the appeal process is completed, The Migrant Times caught up with Ruth Burgess, Solicitor at Lexington Legal – the law firm fighting Edwin's case pro-bono – for her views on why access to justice is important for migrants well-being, as well as for the international reputation of New Zealand.
Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself?
My name is Ruth and I started law at a mature age. Almost a year and a half ago, I was in Hanmer attending a conference called Hope in which my current boss Paul from Lexington Legal gave a talk on exploitation of migrant workers in New Zealand. That was an eye opener for me because being born and brought up in Christchurch, I had no idea that such a thing existed in my country. Few months later, I got in touch with the firm and now I head the pro-bono department of the firm, where we take public interest cases, mainly dealing with problems arising in work visas and helping migrants accessing justice. I also have two law students Maddie and Elvina who assist me in fighting these cases.
What is the most important case that your team has fought in last one year?
One case that got widespread media coverage was of the Filipino worker Edwin where we went to the Tribunal against an immigration advisor of the firm Business Immigration Limited and won the case. We understand that the other party is planning to appeal, so the judgement is “on hold”. So without going into specifics, this case is the first of a long line of similar cases where migrant workers are being exploited by immigration advisers. We have clubbed together 12 such complaints and Edwin’s case was a test case, sort of.
Apart from the Filipino dairy workers, our firm has also taken up cases of fraudulent student visas for international students coming from India.
What are the possible penalties that the immigration advisers face in such cases?
There are provisions for sanctions such as losing one’s license, being referred to training, or working under supervision. In some cases, monetary penalties and legal costs can also be imposed.
Can you explain in detail the general pattern as regards to the exploitation of the migrant Filipino dairy workers?
Among the Filipino dairy worker's work visa issue, the most common problem is falsification of the work experience documents. Their work experience back in Philippines of only a few months is fraudulently shown to be a few years, to get them placements in dairy farms in New Zealand.
Moreover, the technology here is very advanced as compared to what they’re used to in Philippines. That’s why, Filipino workers, when they first come here, have to learn everything from scratch. It’s a credit to their hard-working nature and willingness to learn that our dairy industry has almost become dependent on them now.
But, the falsification of work experience documents is an important issue. Last year when Immigration NZ started investigating this, they found it to be widespread. We take cases like these and apply for amnesty from Immigration NZ on behalf of these diligent Filipino farm workers. First the worker has to admit that they have submitted false documents, and then produce valid documents stating the correct amount of work experience in New Zealand, and details of appropriate qualifications obtained here.
When you say qualifications obtained here, what exactly do you mean?
I mean, a majority of good farm employers here encourage their dairy farm workers, when they arrive in NZ, to enrol themselves in ITOs and Polytechnics to help with their training. So while working in the dairy farms and getting the appropriate work experience, they also obtain qualified degrees. These put together, help them in getting amnesty from Immigration NZ.
Finally, what about the fraudulent visa issue of international students coming from India?
In that case, the most common problem is fraudulent documents showing that students meet the minimum requirement of funds in their bank accounts needed to secure the student visas. Lot of unscrupulous agents have duped these students by promising them bank loans for studying in NZ, putting their houses as collateral, which never materialised. So when Immigration NZ and Education NZ verify these documents, they found a lot them to be fraudulent and many students now faced deportation.
But I have to be very clear on one thing. A majority of cases related to the dairy farm workers as well as student visas, have been about unlicensed immigration advisers duping people. While we do find some cases of licensed immigration advisers doing unpleasant business as well, as in Edwin’s case, such cases are few and far between, to the best of our knowledge.