MBIE investigating Waikato dairy company Maharaj Farms after migrant worker claims boss didn't pay him for 20 months

MBIE investigating Waikato dairy company Maharaj Farms after migrant worker claims boss didn't pay him for 20 months

A Hamilton businessman is under investigation after one of his migrant employees alleged he worked for him for more than a year-and-a-half without earning a cent.

Rajesh Prasad says Davendra Maharaj - who with his wife is the only director and shareholder of sharemilking business Maharaj Farms - exploited him for his own gain.

The accusations against Maharaj by Prasad - and several other current and former employees - range from late payments and visa-related threats to withholding the COVID-19 wage subsidy and asking a worker to spy on a colleague.

The claims have prompted an investigation by the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment's (MBIE's) Labour Inspectorate over potential employment standards breaches.

Maharaj acknowledged there were also police and Ministry for Primary Industries investigations underway, though neither could provide details of these investigations for privacy reasons.

Maharaj had agreed to an interview with Newshub to respond to the claims made against him, but later pulled out after being advised not to speak to media by his lawyer.

It comes after Prasad told Newshub he worked 20 months without pay as he awaited the outcome of an application for permanent residency, with Maharaj allegedly threatening to rescind his support for it and make him pay for the farm's income losses should he fail to show up for work.

Prasad is a Fijian-Indian migrant and experienced sharemilker. He says he worked for Maharaj Farms from June 2019 to March 2021 alongside his wife Ashima, though admits the conditions of his work visa didn't allow him to do so until May 2020.

Prasad says he worked for Maharaj Farms between June 2019 and March 2021, but Maharaj disputes this.
Prasad says he worked for Maharaj Farms between June 2019 and March 2021, but Maharaj disputes this. Photo credit: Facebook / Maharaj Farms

Prasad says he had an arrangement for payment with Maharaj, but never received a cent until his final few weeks of the job - despite allegedly working an entire year straight without a day off.

Maharaj denies this, claiming Prasad only worked as an employee of Maharaj Farms between February 9 and March 19 this year.

In an email seen by Newshub, Maharaj claims any time Prasad spent working before February 9 was nothing more than Prasad "helping [his] wife", alleging he'd agreed not to be paid before he received a valid visa.

The 46-year-old says when he spoke up about his treatment, Maharaj made a range of threats - including rescinding his support for Prasad's visa application. Other migrant employees of Maharaj have told Newshub threats like these are commonplace.

'We didn't have a choice, we had to carry on'

Prasad, who moved to New Zealand from Fiji in 2007, had become friends with Maharaj in 2011 after meeting him at religious functions in Hamilton.

Following years of visa struggles for Prasad, he says Maharaj in 2019 offered to help him - first by taking him to an immigration lawyer, then by promising he could help get him and his wife Ashima permanent residency "at any cost".

Wanting to get into the sharemilking business, Maharaj set up a company in April 2019 - Maharaj Farms - and appointed himself director. As he had no experience in the industry, he offered to employ Prasad, using Prasad's knowledge and skills to secure him a contract with a Waikato farm.

This arrangement coincided with scenes of great joy for Prasad and his family, whose registration had just been drawn from the ballot to apply for the Pacific Access Category Resident Visa.

"Everybody at my home was so emotional and we started crying," he told Newshub. "We [felt like] we had won a million-dollar lottery."

As part of the application process, Prasad had to prove he had a job offer that would pay enough to support him and his family in New Zealand. Maharaj provided him with an official job offer letter sighted by Newshub, which offered him a role managing a Te Aroha dairy farm from June 2019.

It stipulated he'd work 12 days per fortnight and get a salary of $65,000, four weeks' annual leave, and a house and ute at no cost. It also noted his wife Ashima would be provided with work doing farm assistant duties for 30 to 40 hours a week, for which she'd be paid $18 per hour.

Prasad says he'd agreed verbally with Maharaj that he'd work without pay until his salary had accumulated to $20,000 - at which point he'd get the money in a lump sum and pay his daughter's international university fees.

However their working relationship quickly soured after Maharaj allegedly delayed giving him a contract so Prasad could apply for a variation of conditions (VOC) on his work visa.

As the months wore on, Prasad began to realise he wouldn't be receiving a lump sum nor a salary. He said Maharaj would later tell him not to worry about the salary and instead promised to give him cows to start his own sharemilking business.

When Prasad complained about his lack of pay to Maharaj, he was allegedly told he couldn't receive a salary because his work visa was granted through Waikato Dairy Farming Ltd, his previous employer, not Maharaj Farms.

Under New Zealand's immigration laws, those on a work visa have to apply for a VOC before they can work for a different employer. Prasad's request for a VOC was granted in May 2020.

But even after this, Prasad didn't get paid for months. He says Maharaj threatened to withdraw his support for Prasad's permanent residency application if he stopped working - something Prasad had been working nearly a decade for.

Prasad said Maharaj also told him he would be liable for any losses the farm made due to his absence, and threatened to sell the cows he'd allegedly promised to give them.

"We didn't have any choice. We had to carry on," Prasad said, adding that he always paid out of his own pocket when things went wrong out of fear of retribution from Maharaj.

Their prospects only worsened when COVID-19 hit, and his residency application process was halted. The delay meant he and Ashima would have to continue working for Maharaj indefinitely to keep their hopes of residency alive.

While Ashima was receiving $600 a week, which increased to $700 partway through 2020, Prasad's lack of income was placing them under financial strain. And the couple were pulling huge hours; Prasad estimating they were regularly working 14-hour days and were always exhausted by the time they got home.

"It was very, very stressful for my family," he said. "We didn't have any family time."

He says there was one period they worked 365 days in a row without taking a single weekend, annual leave day or public holiday off. They estimate they were working close to 100-hour weeks during this time.

Maharaj Farms claimed the Government's COVID-19 Wage Subsidy Extension in mid-2020 and later the Resurgence Wage Subsidy, bagging more than $32,000 in the process - but Prasad says he never received a cent despite the requirement to pass on wages to employees.

By August 2020, Prasad says he'd grown exhausted after working months on end without a break. In his tired state, he suffered an injury on the farm in Te Awamutu - a tractor fork falling on his foot - and a visit to the doctor revealed it was fractured.

However ACC couldn't give Prasad a payout as he was unable to produce a contract proving he was getting a salary. 

'Pay our salary and let us go'

The ACC experience was one of the final straws for Prasad. He started telling his local community Maharaj was mistreating him and began gathering evidence to take to the relevant authorities.

But he says Maharaj caught wind of his intentions and began accusing him of stealing and dishonesty, and on March 19 this year terminated his contract.

In an email exchange from early March 2021 seen by Newshub, Prasad pleads with Maharaj to stop overworking him and Ashima and pay them the money they are owed.

"Please please we humbly request you to stop doing all this to us, we are totally stressed and tired," he writes.

"You always falsely promised us that you will help us with work visa up to residency. Please just pay our hard earned blood sweat salary and let us go. We don't want anything more than that."

In the exchange, Maharaj tells Prasad he had actually only been working for him since February 9, 2021, and wouldn't pay him for any time preceding that. Prasad says Maharaj chose this date because it was just after his work visa had been renewed.

MBIE says its investigation could take as long as 12 months to complete.
MBIE says its investigation could take as long as 12 months to complete. Photo credit: Facebook / Maharaj Farms

In an email sent to Prasad on his final day, Maharaj writes: "You always maintained that you will be helping your wife till you get the visa. You were in agreeence (sic) from day one that you will not be paid if you don't have a valid visa."

The experience has left Prasad with shattered dreams. He says Maharaj is greedy and deliberately withholding what he owes.

"He promised us he was going to give all the cows to me... he said as soon as you get residency you can have your own sharemilking business. He [made] all false promises, he never did anything," Prasad told Newshub.

"And now he's put false allegations on me - like theft of calves, fuel theft on the farm and dishonesty - all to terminate our contract."

Prasad has moved out of the house provided for him by Maharaj Farms and hasn't spoken to Maharaj since their falling out. He and Ashima couple have found another job in dairy farming elsewhere.

The Labour Inspectorate confirmed an investigation has been launched into Maharaj Farms over employment standards. An MBIE spokesperson said it could take as long as 12 months to complete the investigation.