The screws have tightened on companies and agents housing migrant workers since Immigration New Zealand launched an investigation into six Auckland properties in August due to unsanitary living conditions.
Yet, more properties with very high occupancy numbers continue to be discovered - the latest being a three bedroom-house in West Auckland that is believed to have accommodated as many as 22 people at its peak, according to workers who stayed there.
Situated in Massey, the property housed an endless stream of migrants who constantly came and went, the workers said. When the bunk beds crammed into the bedrooms and living room were full, some workers reportedly slept in a makeshift space under the house.
The property's residents were mostly employees of Smaster Limited and Krays Civil Limited. Smaster is registered under Lulei Shi, while Krays Civil is registered under Shi's partner, Yujun Xu, although Shi admits to being the company's manager.
Both companies are registered under the same address, and the property at which the workers have been staying is registered under the couple's names. The Immigration New Zealand website shows that both companies are accredited employers.
Tao Han, a migrant worker who had been living at the property since arriving in New Zealand in late August, had worked for Krays Civil for about a month, but hadn't worked for three weeks when RNZ spoke to him at the end of October.
"I wouldn't be able to afford living in New Zealand like this," Han said.
Han had paid an agent almost $19,000 for his original New Zealand work visa, but arrived to find that the company tied to his visa had no work for him. The agent then helped him transfer the accredited work visa to Krays Civil.
Lacking work, Han planned to return to China after receiving the wages he was owed.
Shi told RNZ that he hadn't given the worker any further work because Han had told him he wanted to return to China. Han denied this.
Divided into four sleeping areas, the three-bedroom house has 17 sleeping spaces in total, with minimal space between the beds.
Workers told RNZ that two people slept on mattresses under the house on occasion, with one worker who captured one such incident on video claiming that 22 people were living in the house at the time.
A deck has been converted into a covered makeshift kitchen, which features a shelf to store food and appliances, two gas cookers and a large dining table. The area becomes unbearably hot on a sunny day.
The property has two toilets and a shower that are shared by all occupants.
Han said the workers were charged $150 per week for rent and, when they had jobs, were charged an additional $80 each week to cover transportation costs between the property and work sites.
Han had no idea how these costs were deducted from his earnings because he says he was never given a pay slip.
"(Shi) is not giving us any work, nor is he firing us. We are just told to stay home when there is no work," Han said, adding that he knew a few workers who were dismissed.
Yubo Fang, a worker who arrived in New Zealand in March on a visa tied to Smasters, is seeking legal help after being dismissed by Shi.
Fang paid an agent more than $16,000 for the job opportunity in New Zealand. He had initially stayed in the Massey property but has since moved out.
"We had bunk beds. It was very crowded and hard to walk around in the room," he said. "There were even people sleeping in the space under the house. There was no carpet or insulation."
Fang said he was initially charged $100 per week for rent, but Shi eventually raised it to $150.
Shi charged no transportation fees when he was first there, but started deducting $50 per week from wages, he said.
"After I came, the boss started to dismiss other work visa holders. I heard that he had already fired two before I came," he said. "He dismissed more than 10 workers after I arrived."
Fang was dismissed in early August after working for the company for five and a half months.
"I wasn't given any reason," he claims. "It was a Saturday. The boss rang me up and told me that I didn't have to come to work on Monday."
Shi called the allegations "nonsense", saying he had only dismissed two or three workers in total due to poor behaviour or incompetence.
Shi claimed Fang didn't possess the trade skills required and was involved in brawls on work sites.
Xiujian Wang, a former Krays Civil employee, went back to China after being dismissed and struggling to make ends meet.
Wang paid an agent more than $16,000 for a work visa to work in the construction industry. He was promised 47 hours of work per week, but this didn't materialise.
Shi said Wang was dismissed because he "didn't know how to work".
Wang, who also lived in the Massey house, said he had been asked to pay $150 per week for rent.
"We had to queue to cook after work," he said. "You had to queue to do your laundry and everything."
He said the agent in China gave him a refund of $3500, and he had to cover the rest of the loss himself to pay off his loans.
Good intentions 'in vain'
Shi told RNZ he had wanted his property to be used as transitional accommodation for migrant workers who had just arrived in New Zealand before more suitable housing could be found.
However, he now felt his good intentions had been "in vain".
"There was a time when a lot of migrant workers entered the country," he said. "It was very difficult to find and rent a place. … So, I let my house be used as a transitional place. I asked the workers to share their bills but didn't charge them rent."
Shi said he had made it clear to all workers and their agents in advance that they could only stay for a maximum of three months.
However, the number of people arriving gradually increased and many were unwilling to move when the time came because the costs were low, he said, claiming that no more than 10 people lived in the house at any one time.
"The $150 charge … is an attempt to encourage them to move out as soon as possible," Shi said. "I didn't plan to rent out my house in the first place."
Shi said he was not aware of anyone staying in the space under the house, claiming that it was used for storage and was not fit for living in.
When asked to comment on a video showing workers eating in the space under the house with mattresses in the background, Shi acknowledged that workers ate there sometimes.
Shi said he charged migrant workers a transportation fee because many didn't own a motor vehicle or knew how to drive, and he was covering the cost of fuel he was paying for.
Workers were sometimes required to travel to sites as far away as Hamilton and so he felt it was reasonable to charge such fees, which were included in the workers' contracts.
Shi said he was not making any money from rental payments and transportation fees.
He said employers of migrant workers were often at a disadvantage if new recruits weren't able to work in the roles they were hired for, claiming that some workers went so far as to lie about their experience in online interviews. He expressed dissatisfaction with the dismissal processes an employer was expected to work through.
"Why isn't anyone talking about this?" he said. "I must keep them for three months and compensate them for three months while they couldn't perform at work? Don't you think this is unfair to employers?"
Shi also claimed his company was very busy now and he couldn't afford to dismiss people without reason.
Katie Gordon, head of tenancy at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), said landlords and tenants must ensure that properties do not become overcrowded as per provisions in the 1947 Housing Improvement Regulations.
Some requirements specify that there should be enough bathroom and toilet facilities for the number of people living in the house, with bedrooms for a single person measuring at least 6 square metres. If more than one person sleeps in such a room, it will need to be larger.
"If a landlord charges significantly higher rent than the market rent, a tenant can apply to the Tenancy Tribunal to ask for the rent to be reduced," Gordon said.
Lucy Telfar-Barnard, a senior research fellow in the housing and health research programme at the University of Otago in Wellington, said people on temporary work visas might hesitate to defend their tenancy rights.
"You could be here as on a six-month visitor visa, have rented a house and you could take the landlord to Tenancy Tribunal," Telfar-Barnard said. "It's not limited by people's residency status or migration status."
As part of an MBIE-led investigation into immigration fraud linked to the accredited employer work visa programme, Auckland Council issued unsanitary building notices to six properties in August that were housing migrant workers in overcrowded conditions.
In 2021, the council prosecuted the owner of a warehouse in Manurewa that was used to house 42 tenants, predominantly migrant Filipino workers.
Adrian Wilson, compliance manager at Auckland Council, said overcrowded accommodation was within the council's jurisdiction.
"If anyone is living in, or aware of, a property where they believe excessive occupancy numbers are creating unsafe conditions, they are encouraged to report it to the council or (for rental properties) Tenancy Services."
As of 6 November, MBIE has received 1372 complaints against accredited employers. There are currently 202 active investigations underway.
Ninety-four employers have had their accreditation revoked, 21 have had their accreditation suspended and 37 employers are under assessment to have their accreditation revoked.
If employers breach minimum labour standards, they may be temporarily or permanently banned from supporting migrants on work visas, MBIE said.