They were sold a dream: working in New Zealand and earning almost seven times their weekly wages in Fiji.
But, upon arrival into Auckland the false promises quickly unravelled.
Some of the workers were sent to kiwifruit orchards in Tauranga where they were forced to work illegally for long hours, sleep on the floor of overcrowded basements and were paid little, if anything.
Faroz Ali, 46, was the mastermind behind an elaborate human trafficking scam that enticed and exploited Fijian workers in New Zealand and was today convicted after a three -week trial in the High Court at Auckland.
Ali was found guilty of 15 people trafficking charges and guilty of 15 charges for aiding and abetting a person to unlawfully enter New Zealand. He was also found guilty of one charge for aiding and abetting a person to remain unlawfully in New Zealand.
At the beginning of the trial, Ali, a Fijian national with New Zealand residency, pleaded guilty to 26 charges of helping people breach their visa conditions and not paying his employees the minimum wage.
The 15 Fijian workers who fell victim to the scam were lured to New Zealand on the promise of $900 per week picking fruit.
They sold their family cows and borrowed thousands of dollars from their villages for the chance to work in high-paying jobs in New Zealand and give their families a better life.
They returned home empty-pocketed and ashamed.
This result marks the first successful trafficking prosecution in New Zealand history.
One of the lead investigators, Carl Knight, travelled to Fiji a number of times and said many of the exploited workers lived in primitive conditions; some were from villages with only one tap with running water.
"They will never have the ability to pay this money back," he said.
The workers were enticed to New Zealand by advertisements in the Fiji Sun newspaper touting high-paying employment that were placed by travel agencies run by Ali's wife and her twin sister. Workers were then charged up to $4000 each for administration fees, work visas, flights, accommodation and food expenses.
The reality was the workers only received a one-month visitor visa and their rent and food costs were deducted from the minimal wages they received when they arrived.
When they arrived in Auckland the victims were sent to work either on Ali's various construction sites in the city or on kiwifruit orchards in Tauranga.
Suliana Vetanivula, a mother with seven daughters, had to borrow money from friends and family to afford the steep administration fees.
She was promised $900 a week working as a fruit picker in New Zealand; this amount was a small fortune when compared to the $130 a week her husband earned as a taxi driver in Fiji.
When she arrived in Tauranga for work, she was forced to sleep on the floor of the basement garage of her employer's house with two other women and one man.
"There was no bedding, nothing was provided. It was cold, there was no mattress, pillows, blankets whatsoever," she said.
They worked almost every day for the first three weeks and when they asked their employer, Jafar Kurisi, for their wages after the third week, the workers were told they owed him money for rent, food and petrol for driving them to the orchard each day.
Kurisi previously plead guilty to exploitation in relation to this case.
During her testimony, Mrs Vetanivula started to cry when she was asked to explain what happened when she returned home empty-handed.
"When I went back to Fiji people tended to look at me differently because I didn't have any money to pay them back," she said.
"At the moment I still owe a lot of people a lot of money."
One woman testified that she was given $25 after pruning fruit every day for three weeks. When one of the workers questioned Ali about the lack of pay, he said he was threatened with deportation.
Ali did not take the stand during the trial, but his defence lawyer, Peter Broad, argued his client wasn't guilty because he was not aware the workers had been deceived by his wife and sister-in-law in Fiji.
Ali admitted to exploiting the migrant workers and pleaded guilty to those charges, but he was not a trafficker because he had no idea how the workers came to arrive in New Zealand, what they had paid or what they had been promised, Mr Broad said.
During his closing address Crown prosecutor Luke Clancy said:"The suggestion Mr Ali was clueless and blissfully unaware about what they were up to behind his back falls apart. He knew, he was in it up to his eyeballs."
New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers chief executive Nikki Johnson said the organisation condemned illegal and unscrupulous actions.
"The overwhelming majority of our industry complies with labour regulations and we have an ongoing work programme with government agencies to educate growers and contractors about their legal responsibilities to their workers," she said.
The organisation was working with other agencies to establish an identity card for workers in viticulture and horticulture.
HUMAN TRAFFICKING in NZ
- The maximum penalty for a human trafficking conviction is a prison sentence of 20 years and a $500,000 fine, or both.
- Human trafficking is the movement, deception or coercion of people for the purposes of exploitation.
- This was the first trafficking case the newly formed Serious Offences Unit investigated. It took more than 5000 hours and hundreds of pages of evidence were gathered.