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Know your rights

Gisborne visit reveals exploitation issues.

Worker exploitation is happening in Gisborne, says Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Saunoamaali'i Karanina Sumeo.

Problem is those affected may not realise it.

“I am not sure if Gisborne residents understand much about human rights,” said Dr Sumeo during a visit this week.

“Is it something that comes up? I don't know. We need people to understand they have rights . . . people have a right to a life of dignity, a right to fair employment, fair conditions, fair pay — a dignified life.”

In reference to the housing crisis here, she said it was “a fundamental right for people to have shelter”.

Dr Sumeo has been EEO commissioner for 2½ years but this is only her first visit to Tairawhiti, something she feels bad about.

“I am sorry.”

Her role means she spends a lot of time in big urban centres which she says can marginalise voices in the regions.

Recognised seasonal employer (RSE) scheme workers the Gisborne horticulture sector relies on is an area she has been looking into.

“I have been informed about human rights violations in the treatment of those workers,” Dr Sumeo said.

“It's not good for the workers, for our businesses, for our reputation as a country, and certainly not good from a human rights perspective.

“I have heard stories from young people who work in horticulture. They think as long as you get your pay check and get through the week then you are happy.

“But how do they know if they are worth more? Or do they even know they are worth more? And do they feel safe to put their hand up and say ‘I think I'm being underpaid?'.

“These are human rights but do workers even perceive them as human rights?”

She has been made aware of issues around fair treatment in the workplace and worker exploitation of not just RSE workers but also Gisborne residents.

Dr Sumeo has learned in a short time about the struggles people face in Gisborne.

She met with businesses and communities in Gisborne, such as the crew of entrepreneurs at Taiki E! where she was told about the work they were doing in mental health and wellbeing.

She also heard from many people that youth suicide and wellbeing were among the biggest issues in the region.

“How much of that is due to a lack of employment opportunities?

“How much of that is linked to the failures in our education system?

“It is not just about understanding the issues but also thinking about what systemic problems are contributing to these issues,” Dr Sumeo said.

“It's my job to advocate for those people — to business, to members of Parliament, to Cabinet — but I cannot advocate if I don't know what the issues are.

“The issues are different everywhere.”

The meetings Dr Sumeo had here were all positive but made her aware the Human Rights Commission (HRC) was relatively unknown to many people.

“Some have even said ‘well, who are you?' So we had conversations about it, and some of the things they brought up were human rights, or violations of those rights.”

Dr Sumeo said the HRC had a responsibility to make itself visible to communities because it was a free, publicly-funded service everyone was entitled to be using.

“We have a lot of work to do.”

HUMAN RIGHTS ADVOCATE: Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Saunoamaali'i Karanina Sumeo was in Gisborne this week. She urges people who feel they are being exploited to raise the issue with the Human Rights Commission. 'I cannot advocate if I don't know what the issues are.' Picture by Liam Clayton