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Limited scope of accredited employer work visa review dismays immigration groups

8:31 pm on 27 February 2024
Workers are crammed into small rooms in an Auckland house.

Migrant workers sit inside small rooms in an Auckland house in August 2023. Photo: RNZ / Blessen Tom

Immigration advocates have slammed the limited scope of an independent review into the Accredited Employer Work Visa (AEWV) scheme, arguing that the process needs greater scrutiny if it is to be abuse-proof.

Results of the review were released Tuesday by the Public Service Commission, which found that Immigration New Zealand had failed to adequately assess the risk and impact of procedural changes that had been introduced to speed up visa processing times in the context of the country's post-Covid labour shortage.

When immigration staff did flag concerns, the review found that INZ leadership failed to pay adequate attention to the risks.

The review was announced in August 2023 by then-Immigration Minister Andrew Little after a whistleblower had claimed that protocols were not being followed in every case.

Probes into an employer's accreditation status and subsequent job checks were highlighted as being particularly problematic.

The AEWV process has attracted intense media scrutiny since early 2023 after reports emerged that migrant workers on such visas were finding themselves destitute and jobless after paying large sums of money to relocate to New Zealand.

Licensed immigration adviser Katy Armstrong says the review shows that Immigration New Zealand "really dropped the ball here" and the impact of the system's shortcomings will continue to be felt for some time.

"I just want a system that is rational, functional, that I can stand proudly and say this is really a great system," she says. "For the last 18 months, I haven't hand on heart been able to say that."

Armstrong says Immigration New Zealand was under immense pressure at the time, as a record number of changes had been introduced to the approval process in a relatively short span of time.

National MP Erica Stanford

Immigration Minister Erica Stanford. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Immigration Minister Erica Stanford should introduce a whole raft of changes now that she has taken over the portfolio, Armstrong says.

"The whole system needs a good looking at from a technical point of view," Armstrong says. "This sets a framework but, clearly, what she needs to advise on now are the policies fit enough for purpose or do they need some tweaking? What about the process?"

Anu Kaloti, a spokesperson for the Migrant Workers Association, says she doesn't expect much from this review as it didn't "touch on policy at all".

Kaloti says it is concerning the review finds it reasonable to change the country's immigration settings to address the immediate need for access to migrant workers after Covid.

"It's never a reasonable circumstance to take shortcuts, no matter what is going on," she says. "The checks and balances that are in place should not be [ignored]. People should not be able to take a shortcut, especially an organisation like INZ. It's not just a visa application they're dealing with - people's lives are at stake."

Kaloti says the review should have covered inherent problems relating to an employer's accreditation and job checks, which she describes as "loose".

Many workers were brought into the country but were not given any work after paying tens of thousands of dollars to their employers and their agents, she says.

"We've seen cases more like human trafficking and not just exploitation," Kaloti says. "The entire practice and policy need to be reviewed rather than just the processing or the settings we have. I think they need to look at the root cause and fundamentals.

"I think it would be a good idea to put this [visa] category on hold and to do a thorough review -- a very deep, broad and wide review looking at how the policy can be changed."

Kaloti said the government could provide some immediate help to exploited workers, including giving them a 12-month exploitation visa or an open work visa that lasted for the duration of their original visa as well as more compensation to help with their daily needs and the removal of restrictions on roles to make job-hunting easier.

She also calls for more data to be made available to help stakeholders understand the scale of migrant worker exploitation.

Dinesh Khadka, honorary consul of Nepal for Auckland, is pleased the government has started to reform the approval process. However, he still points to loopholes in the process and argues that the recommendations of the review must be followed through.

He says the whole application process needs to be looked at, including the implementation of wider scrutiny before approving accreditation for a business.

Khadka believes the actual scale of migrant worker exploitation tied to the AEWV scheme is much higher than what is being reported, as many workers have declined to report their cases in fear of negative consequences.

"It's very hard for employees to come forward," he says. "INZ needs to have some scheme to encourage people to come forward."

But Arno Nothnagel, vice chair of the New Zealand Association of Migration and Investment, believes the AEWV programme itself has been set up well - it's the way the scheme has been implemented that's worrying.

Nothnagel says there needs to be better evidence and checks in place for employer accreditation and job checks, adding that it would be helpful if INZ has a built-in triage system to assess risks of different companies.

The immigration minister says she is thankful for the immigration staff members who have raised concern about this visa in the first place and she is in contact with INZ to make sure frontline workers voices are taken seriously.

"I've also been talking to immigration officials about the plans I've got to further strengthen some of the AEWV settings, and I will be taking it to Cabinet in the next couple of weeks," Stanford says.

She says the AEWV system disintegrated in what amounted to a perfect storm, offering a new visa processed through a new IT system and overseen by a new generation of immigration officials.

Stanford says urgent action will be taken to mitigate the impact of this scheme in the short term and the government will also examine whether the visa settings are fit for purpose in the coming months.

The Accredited Employer Work Visa was introduced in May 2022, and the indicative completion date of the review was 15 December 2023.

Latest figures show there are nearly 33,000 accredited employers.

As of 16 February, MBIE has received 2,107 complaints against accredited employers, with 174 active investigations still in progress.

What's more, 145 employers have had their accreditation revoked, 53 have had their accreditation suspended and 48 are under assessment to have their accreditation revoked.

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