Migrants are more likely to be exploited when tied to a work visa linked to a single employer, a workers association says, as Immigration NZ faces a review into its processes.
Immigration Minister Andrew Little says officials had been reassuring him for weeks that businesses applying for the Accredited Employer Work Visa were being checked properly.
That was until an anonymous whistleblower from Immigration wrote to him saying checks on the employers, and whether jobs even existed for the migrants they bring in, were not being done properly.
Little has now ordered an independent review.
"There's two areas I've asked the Public Service Commission to organise a review of," Little told Morning Report.
"... that is the checks on employers seeking accreditation under the Accredited Employer [Work Visa] scheme, and then secondly, the job check part of the process, which is once the employer is accredited, the job they then want to recruit into has to be verified as job where an attempt has been made to recruit New Zealanders into."
Immigration declined to be interviewed, but said it supported a review.
Little said migrant exploitation was "tragic" but had been "part of immigration systems here in New Zealand and many other countries around the world for many, many years".
Checks and systems could be put in place, "but it's unlikely we'll ever completely eliminate it".
RNZ has been reporting cases of workers who arrive here on the visa only to find themselves without jobs and penniless after they have paid thousands to agents to get the visas.
He said when borders opened in 2022 there were huge shortages in the labour market. After working with employers, the government put in a low level of checks.
"We made a deliberate decision for what we've described as a light touch regime, but it wasn't a no touch regime."
About 80,000 accredited employer work visas had been issued through the scheme but some of those jobs did not exist, Little said.
"A number have lost their accreditation, and some have been suspended, and there's about 160 who are under investigation at the moment of the nearly 28,000 employers."
He said some migrant workers were part of a "fraud and a scam".
Little said if investigators found criminal offending in Immigration NZ, prosecution or infringement would be an option.
"If they find fraud, I fully expect that they are to involve the Serious Fraud Office."
'Fundamentally flawed' principle
Migrant Workers Association president Anu Kaloti told Morning Report she had no confidence in this review because previous reviews in the past five years had not changed anything.
In 2019, the government announced the employer-led work visa and said it would deal with labour shortages and reduce exploitation. Back then Kaloti said it was likely workers would continue to be exploited as they would only be able to work for a single employer, calling it "modern day slavery".
She reiterated the same views today: "The practice of bonding migrant workers to single employers is akin to modern day slavery,
"We don't do that to our New Zealanders ... people are free to choose their employer and and go work wherever their skill set fits. So why can't we do the same for our migrant workers?
"That is the fundamental problem and until and unless we address that, unfortunately we will keep seeing repeat cycles of exploitation."
Kaloti, who is also a licensed immigration adviser, said she had witnessed the process of getting an employer accreditation was based on a "high trust model".
Through the current review, she hoped there would be more scrutiny around those processes.
Kaloti said while the scheme was put in place to quickly attract more workers, consultation on it was ongoing from 2018.
"From the word go organisations like ourselves and unions and the Citizens Advice Bureaus and many others have been highlighting this issue to MBIE and to the government that fundamentally the principle is flawed.
"The practice of tying migrant workers to single employers needs to stop, so they've been told enough times and they've been told by many, many different organisations."
Union Network of Migrants president Mandeep Singh Bela said it should not have taken a whistleblower for the government to take action.
He said good employers should have nothing to worry about with the review.
"It is sad that we had to go through media as well as the whistleblower had to come out to have that highlighted. They [the government] could have contacted the relevant organisations to hear about our views and get recommendations, also listening to their own officials to make those changes."