They are part of a group who have been “exploited” in the accommodation sector of the tourism industry, the country’s top foreign exchange earner.
The pair told Cook Islands News they earn below the $7.25 per hour minimum wage working at a accommodation provider in Muri.
Internal Affairs senior employment inspector Elizabeth Hosking confirmed workers had recently contacted the ministry to report being paid below the minimum wage.
“Most are hesitant to give us their name or employer’s name, so the best we can do is give them advice according to the Employment Relations Act 2012, so they know their rights and responsibilities,” she said.
“If they require we can approach their employers for them, but most do not take the option, preferring to deal with it themselves.”
The two workers said most staff at this particular property worked more than eight hours a day of hard labour and grounds work, six days a week.
If they were found applying for another job, they would be immediately fired. And when a family emergency came up, they had been advised by their manager that it was not important.
The two workers had been in the same job for three years without a change in their pay. They believed that, with the kind of work they did, they should be paid more.
Lawyer Wilkie Rasmussen, who has dealt with a number of cases concerning poorly-treated workers and breaches of contract, has said gaps in the hospitality industry are likely to be filled with foreign workers who are especially vulnerable to being overworked and underpaid.
Hosking said the ministry did not have data on whether their inquiries were from foreign workers or local workers, or what industry they work in. “However, in the ones we have received in person, there is a wide range of workers.”
When the ministry received a report from a worker being paid below minimum wage and who was willing to give their name, who their employer is, and sign a complaint form, they would approach the employer.
An employer would be required to back-pay the employee from the date of the last minimum wage order coming in to effect.
“Anyone still being paid under $7.25 is entitled to back pay. All you would need to do is provide your payslip which indicates your hourly rate of pay and we will give you advice on how to approach the issue.”
Inspections carried out since 2017 had found a very good compliance rate of employers paying at or above minimum wage.
Internal Affairs had not prosecuted any company for failing to pay minimum wage.
“We encourage workers to please come forward and let us know that they are being paid below minimum wage so we are able to help them correct this issue.”
The new minimum wage rate of $7.60 per hour will come into force on July 1.
“There is no excuse for an employer not to know that a new minimum wage is being enforced, as it is extensively advertised in several forms of media,” said Hosking.