They came from countries across South America after being sold dreams of high-paying jobs and a better life for their families.
Instead, many have received hardly any work or pay since arriving and some say they are “living like strays” and literally begging for food.
Karen Gibney, the president of the Latin American Community in Tauranga, said about 200 people from Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia had paid thousands of dollars for visas and employment agreements to work with New Zealand construction labour hire company Buildhub.
This company is based in Auckland. It is unrelated to a Southland-based company by the same name which has no connection to the migrant visa allegations.
The migrants were granted visas under the accredited employer work visa scheme, but claim they arrived to non-existent jobs or were offered far fewer working hours than promised.
Immigration Minister Andrew Little ordered an urgent review of the scheme last week after he initially denied any link with the apparent increase in migrant exploitation.
Immigration New Zealand (INZ) says it is unable to give any information regarding Buildhub and will neither confirm nor deny that the company was involved in an investigation.
Buildhub says it takes the allegations very seriously but categorically denies it had exploited, scammed or “sold” people’s labour to other companies, or that the employees had no work.
Gibney said she was helping more than 20 individuals and families since March, and arranged for the Herald to meet 15 of them at a East Auckland home.
They all sought a better life under the Accredited Employer Work Visa (AEWV) scheme, being promised decent jobs, but now found themselves destitute.
She said, that in her opinion, “They are human beings ... parents who came with dreams of a better life for their kids. It is just unfortunate that they have been made victims of a job scam that has destroyed their dignity and their lives.
“I have cried many times just listening to their stories ... They came here on the promise of better jobs and better lives, but it was just a lie,” she believed.
Manuel Herrera, 27, spent about $10,000 to come here to work as a construction technician but since he arrived on July 1 claimed he had only been given three days of work unloading boxes for a different company.
“I have run out of money and cannot survive here any more. There are days when I don’t even have anything to eat,” he said.
Herrera has a 1-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter back in Chile and said he felt guilty about not being able to send any money home.
“I feel frustrated, helpless, mentally tired, and really angry at myself for being stupid enough to believe in this scam,” he said.
“I did not have money to send home. My family also have nothing to eat.”
After just seven weeks into his three-year work visa, Herrera had given up and left on a flight back to Chile shortly after the interview on Sunday.
His application for a migrant exploitation visa was declined.
Most in the group said they paid between $4000 and $10,000 for visas, job offers, and signed contracts to work with Buildhub.
The Herald had previously spoken to others who paid agents up to $32,000 to secure these agreements.
After signing up to work as a construction technician on 47.5 hours a week, Jorge Arriaza, 38, moved here on February 24 with his wife, Cristina Diaz, 35, and their two children, Renata, 3, and Rafael, 5.
They rented a two-bedroom house in Bayswater and enrolled their children in the local kindy and school.
“It was like a dream at first, a start to our new life. But then the red flags came when I didn’t get the work I was promised and got sent to do a job as a cleaner instead,” Arriaza said.
“I now only earn $750 per week but our house rent alone is $620. There is nothing left for food or even school fees.”
A car he claims he bought at the request of Buildhub is being repossessed as he couldn’t repay the loan.
Diaz said they also didn’t have the money to buy furniture for the house and sit on the floor to eat when they get food that is mainly donated.
“We can’t even afford to pack the kids’ lunch boxes and have to stop sending them to school,” she said.
“Is this the better life that we are promised? We depend on food parcels and the charity of others. We are no better than strays begging for food.”
Jorge Valderrama, 47, who was a welder carpenter in Chile, was also promised work as a construction technician and came with his wife, Vanessa Tello, and their children, Matilda, 12, and Gabriel, 3.
But he claims he was not given any work by Buildhub and jobs he secured after getting a variation of conditions to his work visa only paid him “under the table”.
“I am a hard worker and I can support my family, but the visa situation leaves me helpless and vulnerable,” he said.
Colombians Camilo Montanez Giraldo, 46, and Jaime Alberto Caceres Perez, 40, borrowed money from family and friends to pay for their visas to come to New Zealand and are now struggling to repay their loans.
Perez claimed members who spoke about their plight, even on WhatsApp, had been threatened with deportation and sacking by Buildhub.
INZ has launched several investigations into alleged visa fraud and migrant exploitation, and this includes investigating 164 accredited employers.
Marty Logan, lawyer for Buildhub, said: “With regard to your question about our client’s co-operation with Immigration New Zealand, our client is in the process of gathering information to assist with INZ’s investigation.
“Due to the complexity of the matter, some time may be required to gather and verify all the necessary information.”
Logan said Buildhub took the allegations seriously and was committed to addressing the matter thoroughly.
“Our client’s project was initiated with the intention of providing meaningful job opportunities to Latin Americans in New Zealand, and it is disheartening to learn that there have been allegations of false promises, visa payments and exploitation,” he said.
“Our client categorically denies that they have exploited or scammed migrants or that they have ‘sold’ them to other companies. Our client also categorically denies that their employees have no work. This is simply untrue. Over 90 per cent of Buildhub’s workforce as of last Friday was actively working.”
Logan said the payments for visas were for licensed immigration advice and assistance with the lodgement of their work visa applications.
“There is nothing untoward about this,” he said.
Logan said during the recruitment process, the Latin American candidates were told about the business model which was a triangular arrangement and third-party controlling accreditation for Buildhub.
“Buildhub has commercial agreements with key players in the construction industry. It holds controlling third-party accreditation with INZ,” he said.
Logan said Buildhub had worked to also address issues of migration, cultural isolation, and communication barriers and always remained open to improvement.
Steve Watson, INZ’s general manager immigration compliance and investigations, would not say if Buildhub was part of its investigation.
“We are unable to give any information regarding this employer, nor will we confirm or deny their involvement in an investigation,” Watson said.
He said INZ was also not able to comment further on any of the investigations relating to the AEWV.
“We have a duty to protect the integrity of our investigations and not jeopardise outcomes,” Watson said.
“We appreciate that these workers are in a difficult situation, and strongly encourage them to contact us as soon as possible to discuss their circumstances so we can look into these allegations and take the appropriate action and connect them with support services.”
Watson said visa holders who make a complaint about an employer can leave their current job quickly while the exploitation is being investigated.
“They can apply for a Migrant Exploitation Protection Work Visa as soon as their report of exploitation has been assessed by Employment New Zealand and they have been given a Report of Exploitation Assessment letter,” he said.
“These visas are given high priority processing and will be granted for up to six months depending on the time remaining on their current visa.”
Watson encouraged victims of a visa scam to contact MBIE’s contact centre on 0800 209020 or report to police or anonymously to Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.
This is the latest in a string of alleged exploitation linked to the AEWV scheme described by INZ as a “higher trust model” that replaced six visa options a year ago.