Fake visas, Oprah's signature and offers to sell jobs - the latest New Zealand immigration scams

By Gill Bonnett of RNZ

Fraudulent overseas agents are contacting New Zealand employers to sell jobs and visas - and some have taken up the offer, according to experts in the immigration industry.

Immigration advisers want a crackdown on employers who are in 'business partnerships' with overseas recruiters who are selling jobs.

And the Association for Migration and Investment says fake visas are also circulating, including one that appears to show the signature of US star Oprah Winfrey.

Hundreds of companies that used employer accredited work visas (AEWVs) have either been blacklisted or are being investigated for a variety of scams and exploitation.

The Serious Fraud Office said it would not confirm or deny if it had received complaints or if it had opened an investigation, to protect the maintenance of the law and the right to a fair trial.

Auckland-based immigration adviser Brandon Han said overseas job-selling agents were operating out of reach of New Zealand legal consequences.

Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey Photo credit: Getty

"Even myself, I have been contacted by agents from overseas so many times, and they offer me huge money and ask whether I have any employment opportunities to sell. I've heard a lot of New Zealand employers have been contacted with offers of money and business partnerships."

He declined and knows his employer-clients also did, but was speaking out to highlight deficiencies in the system. Other advisers in his network had almost all been contacted by overseas recruiters in the same way.

The demand from migrants willing to pay for work made job-selling extremely lucrative, and it's not illegal in some countries, he said. "In China you register to operate as an overseas 'recruiter'. The government openly allows this to happen and leaves the pricing entirely to the free market."

Han had heard that in some cases another organisation facilitated the job-selling. "It's like a middleman who created a company overseas to avoid New Zealand's legal obligations and then created a bridge between the New Zealand employer and the large overseas recruiter. So you can see how the production line works."

Critics have said the AEWV scheme, brought in during the Covid pandemic, had very little checks and allowed migrants to buy jobs and be exploited.

Han said underpayment of workers was still continuing and some migrants were complicit in cheating the system. "For instance, they make up stories to apply for refugee status. This is an example of asylum claim abuse. A middleman approached me with many Chinese migrant workers ready to go on this path."

Immigration minister Erica Stanford last week spoke to RNZ about a 70 percent increase in asylum claims in the past few months and how the government was going to act to cut those numbers.

Fixing the problem

Immigration industry group NZAMI chair Arunima Dhingra agreed some migrants knew when their visa was fraudulent.

She said there had also been an increase in reports of fake visas, including one using the logo of former associate immigration minister Poto Williams and a signature claiming to be from Oprah Winfrey.

"I looked at that and I thought, well, if you're a migrant, you would need to use some common sense. You know if you're paying thousands of dollars for something you're starting on the wrong foot in the first place. And I sympathise with a lot of migrants that get taken for a ride, but to be honest, many will come here knowing that it's the wrong foot, but it works for them therefore they'll take it anyway."

She said immigration advisers and lawyers foretold the fraud problems, and now wanted to help the government fix them before companies started to come up for re-accreditation this winter.

"Immigration and the government have now got a golden opportunity and a very tiny window to weed out the employers that should not be accredited.

Legal action is being taken against one New Zealand-based immigration adviser, who faces charges of providing false or misleading information.

In a statement, INZ said job-selling was an offence under the Immigration Act and employers could face compliance and enforcement actions penalties.

"Immigration New Zealand only operates within our on-shore jurisdiction which means we have limited legal jurisdiction on parties who are acting illegally overseas," said compliance and investigation manager Steve Watson.

"Job-selling is an offence in New Zealand as it falls under the migrant exploitation provisions under section 351 of the Immigration Act 2009. If an employer is found to have exploited any migrants they have employed then they can be held to account through a variety of compliance and enforcement actions. The Labour Inspectorate also investigates and holds to account employers and organisations engaging in migrant exploitation."

Immigration lawyer Richard Small said the elephant in the room, that had been ignored for years, was the need to make job-selling a standalone criminal offence.

"Wages protection is a civil matter only, and that won't scare off the people that are making thousands of dollars from these migrants. There is a hardcore of New Zealand employers who are docking the ticket and sadly, even some advisers who have built their business model on job selling."

MBIE has received 2384 complaints against accredited employers - 180 employers have already been stripped of their ability to recruit migrants and another 183 investigations were under way.

Another 47 employers were under assessment to have their accreditation revoked and 64 have had it suspended.

More checks have now been introduced on businesses, jobs and migrants to address the problem of fraudulent scheme - but that has also increased visa processing timeframes. Employers were being told INZ was trying to improve the wait times, but to allow at least six weeks for the visa, in addition to six weeks for accreditation and another three weeks for job checks.