Temporary migrants as vulnerable workers: a literature review

20 Mar 2014

This report reviews the available international and New Zealand research on temporary migrants’ vulnerability and exploitation in the workplace, highlighting research gaps and whether there are effective interventions.


Although New Zealand has long depended on immigrant settlers to supplement the national supply of labour, there has been a substantial increase recently in the number of temporary migrants arriving. Temporary migrants play an important role in the labour market, participating in both skilled and unskilled work. However, the vulnerability of this workforce has received increasing attention recently as concerns are raised about the potential exploitation they face and the vulnerable position in which their migrant status leaves them. These concerns have been documented in the media. For example, in November 2013, an Auckland-based Korean food-preparation factory was alleged to have exploited migrant workers with 16-hour working days with few or no breaks, paying below minimum wage with no employment contract.

The New Zealand Government has also raised concerns about the vulnerability of temporary migrant workers, taking seriously its responsibility to ensure migrants are lawfully employed and not exposed to workplace exploitation. For example, at the 103rd session of the International Organization for Migration Council, held in Geneva in November 2013, Davis pointed to the expansion of legal penalties established to deter employers from exploiting migrant labour. Migrants are legally protected with regard to their labour market engagement, and it is a crime for any employer to exploit a migrant worker. The Immigration Amendment Bill (No 2) contains amendments to protect migrant workers from exploitation. The proposals will make it a specific offence to exploit migrants who hold temporary work visas. In addition, the Bill will enable immigration officers to enter and search a workplace, without notice, to determine whether an employer is complying with the Immigration Act 2009 and employees are complying with the work-related conditions of their visa. Policy settings have been introduced that are designed to directly protect the immigration status of those migrants who have experienced exploitation and reported it. Concerted efforts are also being made to appropriately and effectively communicate worker rights, including the new changes, to migrant workers.

It is with this policy setting in mind that this review is carried out. The aim of this literature review is to provide a comprehensive understanding of international and New Zealand literature on vulnerable temporary migrant workers. Such an understanding will enable policy makers and researchers to consider what policy responses are required and identify specific areas for future research. Key areas of enquiry include the following:

  • What is the nature and extent of migrant worker vulnerability and exploitation?
  • What are the experiences of vulnerable migrant workers?
  • What are effective interventions to mitigate migrant vulnerability and reduce exploitation?
  • What are some ‘best practice’ methodological approaches when undertaking research related to vulnerable migrant workers?

The report is organised in the following way.

  • Chapter 2 outlines the methodology of this review, including the scope of literature searched and definitions of key terms.
  • Chapter 3 provides an overview of temporary migrants in New Zealand. A brief description of each visa category is provided, along with international equivalents where appropriate. Demographic characteristics of this mobile population are outlined, particularly with regard to occupational concentration, geographical distribution, birthplace composition as well as age and gender patterns.
  • Chapter 4 reviews international and local evidence regarding groups of migrant workers who are particularly vulnerable as they participate in the labour market: non-native English language speakers, low-skilled or unskilled workers, those arriving from low-income source countries, remittance workers, women and international students. The second part of this section concerns particular migrant statuses and their associated vulnerability.
  • Chapter 5 examines those industries that have particularly large numbers of temporary migrant workers and the specific challenges those migrants face working in these industries.
  • Chapter 6 is broad and concerns international and local literature regarding specific vulnerabilities as well as issues associated with subcontracting and self-employment; occupational, safety and health; and migrant responses to tenuous work environments (work–life balance and resistance and coping strategies).
  • Chapter 7 turns to the international and domestic policy recommendations as outlined in the literature.
  • Chapter 8, identifies the gaps and policy challenges evident from the literature and makes suggestions for future study.
  • The final section, Chapter 9, contains conclusions
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