New figures show 188 employers are now being investigated for migrant exploitation and breaching visa rules in New Zealand, with one MP estimating thousands of workers could be affected.
Community leaders from Nepal and India met with Immigration Minister Andrew Little over the weekend to discuss a scheme in which migrant workers paid large amounts to intermediaries for visas and jobs that are non-existent.
Workers from Colombia, Brazil, Chile, the Philippines and Bangladesh have also been caught up in the alleged exploitation scam.
Immigration NZ (INZ) says it does not know how widespread the problem is, but National’s immigration spokeswoman Erica Stanford, who has been working closely with workers and their advocates, estimates the victim numbers to be “in the thousands”.
The meeting with Andrew Little was held on Saturday afternoon at the Sikh temple in Takanini to discuss ways to help migrants caught up in the ongoing Accredited Employer Work Visa (AEWV) investigation.
Many of these migrants have been discovered to be living in overcrowded and unsanitary houses across Auckland, and some are facing eviction but have nowhere to go.
The total number of complaints the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) has received against accredited employers as of August 28 stands at 758.
“This number only indicates that an allegation involving an Accredited Employer has been received, not whether the allegation can be substantiated,” an INZ spokeswoman said.
“There are currently 188 active investigations under way.”
As part of the investigations, the agency is also contacting people based offshore linked to an investigation into an alleged case of Indian and Bangladeshi nationals who arrived in New Zealand with the promise of employment that did not eventuate.
“We can confirm that 193 individuals who are offshore that are linked to the employers we are investigating have been contacted by INZ through the contact details provided with their application,” the spokeswoman said.
“We will continue to update them frequently so they understand the situation and the impacts this has for them.”
It is asking those affected or who have concerns about the status of their work visas to contact the agency via MBIE’s contact centre on 0800 209020.
But support worker Jeet Suchdev, who is helping these migrants, says INZ needs to contact would-be arrivals linked to all 188 accredited employers under investigation, not just the Indian and Bangladeshi ones.
“The reputation of New Zealand and the country’s immigration system is at stake,” said Suchdev, a convenor of the United Voice Community Trust.
“Immigration New Zealand should try to contact everyone who may likely become another exploitation victim to stop them from coming.”
So far, seven employers have had their accreditation revoked and 11 suspended. A total of 63 employers are under assessment to have their accreditation revoked.
A group of 24 Indian men facing eviction after the property’s landlord gave them a week to leave because they were occupying it illegally told the Herald they were worried they could end up dead in the streets.
“We are being evicted, but where do we go?” Parjinder Singh, 25, told the Herald last Wednesday.
“If we have to sleep in the streets, we will die in the cold.”
The investigations are being led by Immigration Compliance and Investigation, but many also encompass other areas of MBIE, including the Labour Inspectorate.
Inspectors have found some of the migrants to be living in properties that were not fit to house so many people, with up to 40 people in one case being put into a three-bedroom home.
“The conditions of the accommodation were unhygienic, unsanitary and inappropriate,” INZ said in a statement.
“Our first priority was to ensure the health and wellbeing of these individuals, which included ensuring each property had food, water and electricity, as well as connecting them with local agencies who can provide pastoral care and support.”
Stanford says she puts the blame “solely on the Immigration Minister” and describes the situation as “an absolute mess”.
“The problem we’ve got is that even the migrant exploitation protection visa is no longer useful because of the scale of migrant exploitation,” she said.
“This is next-level exploitation. [It] involves many who are not qualified, don’t have any skills, don’t speak English - some do, but not at a level where they can easily get a job here on the median wage that pays nearly $30 an hour.”
Little said the government has no tolerance for migrant exploitation or fraudsters, and there are serious consequences for those who engage in these crimes.
“That’s why we’ve made it easier to raise complaints and why we passed legislation to give immigration officers stronger investigation powers,” Little said.
“When Erica Stanford says the MEPV is not useful what she’s really saying is migrant workers in these situations don’t have rights and shouldn’t be protected.”
Little said the migrant exploitation protection visa was created by the government to support migrants to remain in NZ legally, get their affairs in order and seek alternative employment if the investigations find exploitation had occurred.
“It’s unfortunate that these workers are the victim of a scam and a fraud, that includes clearly people on this side of the transaction. That is wrong,” he said.
“With any immigration policy there is always a risk of abuse and exploitation and that’s why we have things in place like audits, checks and an accessible complaints process.”
Last week, officials launched stings at six properties across Auckland suburbs that uncovered migrant workers being housed in filthy and unsanitary conditions.
The Herald was at a house in Lynfield during a multi-agency inspection when dozens of migrants from Bangladesh were discovered crowded inside the three-bedroom property.
Masud Alam, a legal executive and spokesman for the group of men, said each had paid about $20,000 for their visas and were duped into believing there were high-paying jobs waiting for them when they came.
They arrived about three months ago, but have yet to be given any work or pay.
Last month, an organisation helping victims who came from South America said they believed up to 250 from that region had arrived under the scheme, and many had also fallen victims.
In one case, a 24-year-old woman from Peru had to resort to sex work to repay loans she took out from gang-linked loan sharks to pay for her visa and the fake job offer.
The Nepalese Consulate has also issued a warning on social media after hundreds of migrants also became victims of these “lies and scams”.
The AEWV is a temporary work visa category introduced by the New Zealand Government to help fill labour shortages post-Covid. Last month, the Immigration Minister ordered a review of the scheme.