Migrant exploitation – a blight and cost on all New Zealand16 Oct 2023

New Zealand has historically had a reputation as being relatively free of corruption, but this reputation is at serious risk with the current high incidence of migrant exploitation now rife in the country.

Reports of substandard properties crowded with migrant workers with no food are likely just the tip of the iceberg. It is quite probable that there are several thousand workers in these same situations throughout New Zealand. Most of these workers have been duped by a range of scams involving unscrupulous tricksters, money lenders, various intermediaries, migration agents and New Zealand based employers. Many have paid large amounts of money, sometimes as much as $50,000, to obtain their job and their work visa, and have sold everything to realise their dream of a better future for their family in New Zealand. A dream many will never realise.

These scams are all premised on an offer of employment from a New Zealand employer who has been accredited by Immigration New Zealand (INZ), and this is where the problem begins. The employer accreditation regime was introduced in July last year with the objective to ensure only suitably credentialed employers could employ migrant workers. However, the accreditation application process was undertaken as a “high trust” model with employers simply having to declare that they met financial, employment and compliance thresholds with very little, if any, substantiating evidence, or checks undertaken. It is now apparent that INZ employer accreditation status has provided “Government credibility” to a number of “unscrupulous” employers who have used this standing for their own financial gain – something that could have been avoided, or at least minimised, if the accreditation process had been more robust.

The second stage of the work visa process, the Job Check, normally requires the role to be advertised and evidence there are no New Zealanders available and qualified to work in the role. The fact that a Job Check can be approved for a role for which no work experience or qualifications are required speaks (again) to the very low level of scrutiny applied to this process. Then, after arriving in New Zealand, the migrant worker finds there was no actual job, or the employer no longer has any work available, or they begin working only to find their role terminated within the 90 day trial period.

The cost to New Zealand of this immigration fraud is significant. The Government now has to allocate resources to address the humanitarian needs of these workers, and to seek out and bring to account the employers and agents who are parties to these scams – something much easier said than done! More significant is the reputational damage New Zealand has suffered with the integrity of our immigration system being so easily compromised. It is little wonder that the Government has now ordered an urgent, but belated, review into the accredited employer work visa regime - after denying there was any problem just a few days beforehand!

Immigration New Zealand has responded as it always does – and turned the screws completely around! It is now vetting every application to the “nth” degree and has also announced that 90 day trial periods are no longer allowed in migrant worker employment agreements. It will not now be such a simple or straightforward process to end any such employment relationship and the time to process all applications will materially increase.

Whether these changes achieve the desired objective of reducing the current high level of migrant exploitation we will just have to wait and see. We suspect those perpetrators who have scant respect for the rules will continue to flout them, and law-abiding employers will continue to pay a higher price to do business. It would have been so much better to have taken a little more time and effort to get the process and desired outcomes right in the first place – now all New Zealand has to pay the cost.