Exploited migrant workers are being paid $2 an hour to work in small businesses such as ethnic restaurants. This is almost 10 times less than the figure used in a union campaign for a living wage in New Zealand. Some, desperate for permanent residence, are paying their own wages and taxes to meet requirements for employment to obtain a residence visa.
Indian migrant Padma, who spoke to the Herald on condition her full name wasn't used, gets $20 a day working from eight to 10 hours as a kitchen hand at an Indian restaurant.
The 28-year-old arrived on a visitor's visa from Gujarat last year to be with her husband, who holds a student visa.
The couple are sleeping on mattresses and living in a rented garage in Mt Roskill, which they share with two other Indians.
"Our immigration agent told us it would be really easy for my husband to find a job here, even if he was on a student visa, but after we came, we were told we had to pay to get him the job," said Padma. "We didn't have much cash with us, and after paying our rental bond, agent and school fees, we had nearly nothing left."
Despite being aware of the legal minimum wage of $13.50 an hour, she still considered herself "lucky" to have found an employer who was willing to take her on.
"My visa doesn't allow me to work and my husband can't find a job. What do we do when we have no money?" she said. "If not for this job, we'd probably be sleeping on the streets."
One AUT University study on migrant workers found more than 40 per cent of respondents were working in breach of visa conditions, and nearly 38 per cent said they were paid below the minimum wage.
Associate Professor Felicity Lamm of AUT's Centre for Occupational Health and Safety Research said employers also showed little concern over the health and safety of illegal migrant workers, who were made to work in precarious conditions.
Immigration New Zealand's fraud department has confirmed it is investigating complaints of local companies selling job offers to migrant workers and making employees pay their own wages and taxes.
Unimeg, a union for migrant workers, said such practices were "widespread and common" and migrant workers were continually being exploited because of a lack of official resources.
"Even though the Labour Department and Immigration said they would put in more resources and investigate these cases, we haven't actually seen that from them ... It's just lip service," said Unimeg co-ordinator Dennis Maga.
"Migrant workers are accepting such treatment in exchange for a work visa, but what they're doing is buying into false dreams and employers' false promises."
The problem often escaped detection because hiring was done within individual communities, mainly Indian and Chinese, and usually involved small-business owners.
Mr Maga said vulnerable migrant workers were being paid "next to nothing" to work in jobs that could not be filled locally, usually because of the poor working conditions.
An employment advocate, who's seen several cases of Indian workers being paid $2 an hour, said she struggled to get them to lodge a complaint against their employers.
"Many are aware they themselves are in breach of their visa conditions," said the advocate, who did not want to be named. "There is this fear they could get deported, and everything they've gone through to keep their dream of getting residence visas alive will be dashed if they came forward."