A desperate graduate applied for nearly 300 jobs before landing one with a food import company. But the Auckland job came with a catch - he had to pay his new employer $90,000 for the privilege of being employed.
The six-month-long employment ordeal also saw the business owner demand the new employee pay the company's tax bill out of his own wages or face being sacked.
Sonia Yangyang Gill, who is also known to go by aliases Angelina Hilton and Liu Yang, was taken to the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) by her former employee Chuan Wang last year. She has this week been ordered to pay $97k in reimbursements and legal fees for her conduct.
Wang, a Chinese national, was granted a working visa in 2020 after completing his Masters in professional accounting at Waikato University.
Desperate to make a life for himself in New Zealand, Wang submitted hundreds of job applications before being offered a role as the bookkeeper for Gill's business.
The only catch was that the young graduate was required to pay her a sum of $90,000 in exchange for the job. In return, Wang would also be allowed to use his new boss as a reference to assist with gaining residency.
The agreement was reached despite being illegal in New Zealand. Under the Wages Protection Act, no employer can demand payment in exchange for employment.
Regardless, a desperate Wang agreed with the proposal. A contract was written in Mandarin detailing the arrangement, and multiple payments totalling $90k were made to Gill via both local and Chinese bank accounts.
But the employment relationship turned sour six months later when Wang discovered, in undertaking his bookkeeping duties, that his employer was evading tax.
The discovery of tax evasion was backed up by the testimony of Gill's former accountant, who told the authority Gill had been investigated and penalised by the IRD in the past.
The accountant also alleged Gill was known for creating "phoenix companies", in essence, the act of liquidating existing companies to evade payment, and registering the same business under a new name.
Worried that the tax evasion would reflect poorly on his residency application, Wang raised his concerns with the owner of the company; his boss Sonia Gill. Wang made a partial audio recording of the conversation.
The conversation saw Gill become angry at her employee's insistence she pay the correct company tax.
The employer then attempted to force her own company's tax obligations onto Wang, saying either he pay the company's tax bill from his own wages or be out of a job.
Wang refused. He was sacked the next day.
Wanting to recoup the $90,000 he paid her, Wang later contacted Gill to request repayment of the sum. Gill said she would consider a "partial repayment" if Wang promised to delete the incriminating recording of her.
But that offer of partial repayment totalled just $22,253 of the original $90k sum. That was because Gill believed she had the right to deduct costs related to Wang's employment, including any salary payment above the minimum wage and the cost of Wang's office space.
Unhappy with the proposal, Wang filed a personal grievance with the ERA. Gill refused to attend mediation and threatened to sue Wang and his support person. She filed a counterclaim, but eventually withdrew it.
Wang's grievance then went to a full ERA investigation. Gill didn't appear before the authority but did file a statement disputing Wang's allegations.
But the authority concluded that Wang's claims were sound - proven by both the audio recording of Gill and a number of messages sent via Chinese social media platform WeChat.
In those translated messages, Gill promised Wang that if he paid the sum: "I will co-operate. You can be sure of that."
A colleague of Wang's working for Gill during the same period also corroborated his claims. The payment he made to work for the company was general knowledge among employees, she said.
In its decision, the ERA found that Gill's act of offering employment conditional on a payment was unlawful and breached the Wages Protection Act. An order to repay the sum was justified.
The $90,000 received by Gill must be paid back within 28 days, plus interest of approximately $2000.
The authority also ordered Gill to pay Wang a sum of $5321.56 to cover his legal fees accrued bringing the case to the authority.