Karenina Sumeo, Equal Employment Opportunity Commissioner, stated that some RSE workers from the Pacific countries were being exploited and bonded to excessive debt. She also said that they were living in deplorable conditions.
According to an investigation by the commissioner, these were the conditions faced by workers under the government's RSE program.
Sumeo wrote to the minister stating that fundamental human rights were being violated and that some of what she saw warranted criminal investigation.
Sumeo stated to Checkpoint that he described the situation as exploitation. The conditions they lived in were unacceptable for any family member. Sumeo said it was hard to believe that businesses knew of these men's conditions and considered it acceptable.
"It's a violation of their basic rights and their dignity. We need to do better here in New Zealand."
The Green Party and Council of Trade Unions called for the system's overhaul.
Wood met with Sumeo today and assured Checkpoint that the government would take the concerns seriously. He also said that the government had committed to an extensive review of the RSE program, starting in 2023.
Wood stated that "a key part of it" will be ensuring that the scheme can last and that all workers have good labor standards.
The RSE program is essential for New Zealand. It is vital for workers, it's crucial for Pacific island states, but it must be sustainable, and people treated fairly.
Wood stated that the Labor Inspectorate conducted an extensive investigation into concerns regarding RSE employer obligations. The process is expected to be complete within six weeks.
Sumeo stated that a thorough investigation was necessary before Sumeo could prove his claims.
We must have a proper investigation into those matters; as she said to me, she was one of our senior watchdogs within the system, so we take her concerns seriously, but she doesn't have the power to investigate.
"This is why we must ensure that the Labor Inspectorate (and other authorities) now thoroughly investigates to determine if these things are occurring."
Sumeo stated that the RSE program was being run in a manner that allows modern slavery to occur. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment had been called in with police to investigate these concerns.
She said that concerns were raised about MBIE and the Labor inspectorate's ability to investigate this sector. However, it had not found any wrongdoing in its previous investigations.
Wood stated that the Labor Inspectorate was confident they will uphold employer standards.
"They are independent and their role is to uphold labor standards... They take these issues seriously, and they provide that client to Immigration New Zealand if they feel that an employer shouldn't be employing workers. I have confidence that they will do so if there have been any breaches."
He stated that the Labor Inspectorate has recommended against the accreditation of 25 employers as RSE employers in the last few years.
Wood stated that he will also be reviewing the RSE employment standards in order to give employers, workers, and authorities clarity about the obligations that should always be enforced.