29 Aug 2023

Buildhub disputes claims migrant workers not given jobs, hours

6:08 pm on 29 August 2023
A man holding a ballpoint pen to fill a work visa application form to New Zealand.

A man holding a ballpoint pen to fill a work visa application form to New Zealand. Photo: 123RF

A group of South American migrants have made complaints about job contracts they signed with Buildhub, as part of the Accredited Employer Work Visa (AEWV).

Alfredo wanted to move from Chile to New Zealand with his family because he thought New Zealand was a fair, just and transparent country.

He signed a contract to work as a construction technician with Buildhub, a construction labour provider based in Auckland.

But he said he did not get the job he signed up for. A civil engineer, he said he was given work as a carpenter.

He resigned after nearly two months and said he was broke and living on favours.

Alfredo claimed Buildhub gave himself and others false promises that convinced him to travel to New Zealand and that since arriving here he had been mistreated.

He came to New Zealand on a three-year Accredited Employer Work Visa (AEWV).

The visa processes in Chile, after being accepted for a job in New Zealand, cost about US$5000 (NZ$8400), he said.

That did not include flight fares.

Some people he knew had paid between US$4000 and US$11,000 for the visas to New Zealand on the Accredited Employer Work Visa scheme, he said.

Alfredo said he was issued a warning by Buildhub for being part of a WhatsApp group with co-workers in which they discussed their dissatisfaction with their employer.

It was a matter of freedom of speech, he said.

Several people from the group of families interviewed by Voices, also South American, said they came to New Zealand to end up being offered work different to what they believed they had signed up for or for fewer hours than expected.

They said they were now living off favours and borrowed money to support themselves and their families or to fund flights back to Chile.

Buildhub, in an exclusive interview with Voices, said it acted in good faith with its workers and it was the workers who had been opting out of the work they were offered.

Buildhub invited Voices to its Auckland office.

Around a board table were several of its employees, including commercial administrator Ricardo Corona-Perez.

The company was offering an average of 39.5 hours per week which was within the 33 to 47.5 hours required by Immigration New Zealand, Corona-Perez said.

Corona-Perez was told some of the workers said they were not able to get that number of hours, that Buildhub had not given them that number of hours, resulting in not being able to earn enough money to support their families.

He was asked if this was true and replied: "It's not true and not accurate at all".

Everything that Buildhub had promised to people or that was under the employment relationship, the company always complied with, he said.

"So there's a process where you put the people to work, right, and there's a process until the people get the work assignment right, and everybody's under the same process."

It was important to look into the facts rather than assumptions or allegations, he said.

Voices asked Corona-Perez whether the jobs people signed up for when the company recruited in South America already existed in New Zealand or if they were found afterwards.

"The construction industry provides all those options, so there's heaps of jobs out there for everybody coming," Corona-Perez said.

He said 92 percent of its recruits had work and only 8 percent were not working - and that was because they either resigned or were dismissed.

Buildhub said it had pulled together evidence and defended its position.

It painted the workers as disgruntled ex-employees.

Corona-Perez said there were detailed descriptions laid out about what the work of construction technicians involved.

"So everybody knew exactly what all the duties [were] from the job description, from construction technician, so everybody was aware of that."

Valentina Marques works with Synergy Advisory - the agency that processes the workers' visas.

"We provide them, before they arrive, a job description, an illustrated job description ... and sometimes in some sites they have to clean, sometimes they have to fix things, sometimes they have to carry things but that's part of the trade and we explain that to them," Marques said.

"And when they arrive, they start cleaning because they need to know the construction industry, it's for their safety, it's the clients we have and they start complaining that that wasn't their job and they sign it and we have all the documents for all the people, that they sign it two months before they arrive.

"So, that's interesting, we also are confused because of that."

Buildhub said the warning letter about the WhatsApp group was an attempt to make workers follow its Code of Conduct about not denigrating the company.

It also said there was nothing untoward about fees for visas.

The Accredited Employer Work Visa scheme is now being reviewed.

"When these allegations began, the company invited authorities from Immigration New Zealand and from police to initiate an investigation and to be the first to look after the matter," Corona-Perez said.

Buildhub wanted to be transparent, he said.

The company was not currently recruiting.

"We want to clear out any doubt because we don't want to do good things and give the wrong impression regarding what is going on, all this noise.

"We first want to clear up everything and the company be relieved of any complaint and then the company will keep providing opportunity for new people."

Alfredo was now on a Migrant Exploitation Protection Visa, meaning he had made a claim of exploitation and it was being investigated, though nothing was proven as yet.

Immigration New Zealand declined an interview, instead pointing to an online statement that said a review of the scheme was being undertaken.

Licensed immigration advisor Paul Janssen, speaking generally about the visa and not about this case, said that while the AEWV was a smart idea, there had not been the due diligence required to ensure it was a robust scheme.

It would be tricky to discern between complainants who may be taking advantage of the system, to those who may have been genuinely ripped off by accredited employers, he said.

With several claims of exploitation coming to light in the past month, he said: "This is not the image we want to put out.

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