Chinese migrant workers: ‘We’ve been cheated’

From Checkpoint, 5:10 pm on 5 February 2019

A group of migrant Chinese workers say they are still waiting for new visas and some are still looking for work after falling victim to a scam.

At Chinese New Year, they are out of pocket and in no mood to celebrate.

The men were recruited last year for construction jobs - with guarantees of work, visas and a place to stay.

Since their arrival, some haven't had a day's work, others say they've been made to sign new contracts, and all of them say they've been abandoned by the agent who charged them $45,000 and disappeared.

Gao Litong came to New Zealand with a dream of earning enough money to properly support his family.

He has to borrow money to pay a man named Peter, or Wenshan Li, for a guarantee of years of work, and a three-year visa.

"I paid 43,000 New Zealand dollars to come over here," he said.

"Peter Li promised my one-year visa would be extended once we arrived here. Now he just left us here with NPL. He's not picking up our calls or replying to our messages."

NPL is National Personnel Limited. Its website explains it's the brain child of brothers Kevin and Peter O'Connor. It finds contractors for construction companies.

The O'Connor brothers were also behind Poutama Training Institute, which offered basic construction training for cadets, but after cadets complained they were conned and had to sign loan agreements, the NZQA launched an investigation, and says Poutama was never registered.

The institute is now no longer in business.

The 50 Chinese workers said their initial visas were all approved due to sponsorship and the promise of work from NPL.

But Mr Gao said that never eventuated.

"NPL was not actively arranging work for us," he said.

"After I signed a contract with NPL, I had nothing to do for four weeks. Not a single day of work. So we just slept all day. It's hard to describe how I felt then… we paid so much money but have no job to do here, meanwhile we have our elderly parents and children to support back home."

"I was hoping to earn more money and let my family live a better life, but what we've experienced was nothing like that. I feel very bad... we've been cheated."

Xu Xinjian is staying at the same place as Mr Gao. There are nine men cramped on mattresses in the Green Lane house. Fortunately for them, one of the new employers is covering their accommodation fees.

Mr Xu said some of them did not have any work and were so out of pocket they could never pay.

"After we arrived here, we signed two more contracts with NPL. The first contract still says we were guaranteed to work 30 hours a week but when we signed the second contract, they didn't give us a copy," he said.

"Now they're saying we will work an average of 30 hours a week over 10 weeks. We had agreed to be paid for the promised hours even if we didn't have work, but while some workers got that compensation, I didn't."

Mr Xu said he had a three-year visa but it would take at least a year-and-a-half to earn back the money he said he paid to Mr Li.

Mr Li is listed as a co-director of a number of New Zealand registered companies, including NZT Fashions Limited.

When RNZ visited NZT Fashions, a co-director of the company said she hadn't seen or heard from him since late last year.

Mr Li is also the director of another New Zealand company named NZ-China Free Trade Association. The only other director, inactive since 2013, is NPL director Kevin O'Connor.

While Mr O'Connor hasn't agreed to an interview, he did say that the NZ-China Free Trade Association has never traded.

Mr O'Connor said he relinquished his shareholding in that company last October, and said he never received any dividends or money as a shareholder or during his three days as a director.

Immigration New Zealand (INZ) said it could not comment on the case, but said it was expediting the workers' new visas.

RNZ understands a single staffer at MBIE is working on their case. RNZ also understands that Mr Li is under investigation by INZ, which includes the circumstances of NPL's recruitment of the workers.

INZ said that in the two years after the 2015/2016 financial year, the number of complaints more than doubled to more than 3500.

A lawyer for most of the Chinese workers, May Moncur, said INZ needed to tighten up its processes.

"Immigration New Zealand needs to set up higher standards to make sure that employers who want to bring workers to this country have sufficient work to provide to those workers," she said.

Ms Moncur also said she filed an application with the Employment Relations Authority, claiming wages and personal aggrievance on behalf of the workers.

She recently received a statement in reply from NPL's lawyers and said the case was moving towards mediation.

Ms Moncur also said she was concerned about the alleged behaviour of Mr Li, and the fees could be regarded as illegal premiums according to section 12(a) of the Wages Protections Act.

Immigration Minister Iain Less Galloway has previously promised the workers would get new visas, but Mr Gao said he was still waiting.

"I still want to stay in NZ and work," he said.

"I will work hard. I hope I can work longer here and earn more money for my family back in China."

Mr Xu said he hadn't seen or heard of Mr Li since late last year, but did receive a call from him when Mr Li became aware that INZ might be investigating him.

If Mr Li pocketed $45,000 from each of the workers, that's $2,250,000.

* RNZ has made repeated attempts to contact Mr Li directly for comment. Through his lawyer, he has denied the workers' allegations.