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Modern slavery right here in NZ

Guest Article | Cam Bower

Cam Bower has worked in law enforcement for both the NZ Police and Immigration NZ. He has witnessed the reality of exploitation and established his own specialist investigation and compliance business focused on ethical labour practices in supply chains.

Recognising the vulnerability and lack of support available to victims of exploitation he established the Migrant Exploitation Relief Foundation (MERF) partnering with colleagues and associates who were equally committed to providing solutions. Along with providing support and intervention MERF is seeking to build awareness and understanding of the reality for many who sought out opportunity in New Zealand.


Slavery, exploitation and trafficking are confronting terms that we quickly attach to third world economies in distant lands.

The reality is, however, we do not need to look too far to realise New Zealand has long since lost its innocence.

In July 2020 New Zealand was confronted with our first conviction for Slavery.

Since then, the headlines have increased in frequency, but still it is hard to accept that it is really that bad.

There is no denying that New Zealand is seen as a destination of choice, the chance of a better life and huge risks are taken to take part in this dream.

But unfortunately too often the reality becomes a desperate fight for survival.

Personalising someone’s story is probably the best way to build understanding. This is a journey I have seen too often and outcomes vary, sometimes with tragic end.

Arriving in New Zealand GK was funded by family who borrowed heavily to secure the chance for a better life. The visa terms provided an opportunity to work in a limited capacity but this was used to create connections that enabled him to “purchase” an essential skill visa with an assurance of a pathway to residency.

Working hard for six years with, at first, promises of support GK continued to work hard. He was required to repay much of his wages to his employer for the privilege of having a job and needed to take on illegal cash jobs in order to survive. Eventually the offers of support changed to threats of unemployment that would result in visa cancellation. In growing despair GK was isolated and ashamed unable to share the reality with his family. An employee speak-up line became a last resort with a conscientious supply chain manager recognising the need for specialist intervention.

For JS the story was more bleak arriving here on a holiday visa he was assured of the support upon arrival. Working with his wife for six weeks upon arrival without being paid all savings were quickly used up. Now bonded and fearful of authorities he was forced to work illegally for subsistence pay. Abused, assaulted and humiliated he fled at night penniless and desperate.

These stories are real people who deserved better from a country that is so reliant on immigrant labour.

Whether living in a plywood box, sleeping on concrete floors or living in isolation without connection to family who believed they were dead, each story is heart wrenching.

But perhaps it becomes more confronting when these stories could be the person serving you at your local liquor store, building your home, growing your food or cleaning your office, even giving you a manicure.

It is easy to dismiss this issue as being seen as “a little bit of cash under the table” or even “still better than what they would find at home”. This mind set makes it difficult to create an appetite for change.

Shifting lofty policy statements to genuine action takes effort and commitment.

Understanding your supply chain and sometimes asking difficult questions is the first step to ending exploitation.

As we plan to cope with labour shortages we strive for the perfect business model that will not only attract but retain great people.

But for some these labour shortages have been used as an opportunity to entice vulnerable people with promises of Utopia.

With a growing awareness and a commitment to do more New Zealand can do better.

MERF is committed to providing a voice, a haven and a solution working with industry leaders who will set the standard in social responsibility.


Cam Bower and the MERF team are grateful for any support to keep this work alive and for opportunities to build awareness and encourage best practice. You can find out more at or e-mail


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