Immigration Minister Andrew Little. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver
The Public Service Commission will review the Accredited Employer Work Visa scheme's processes after a whistleblower came forward with allegations, Immigration Minister Andrew Little says.
At a stand-up just after 5pm, Little told reporters he received an anonymous letter on Tuesday night, which came from an internal whistleblower.
"The particular allegations were that some checks on employers were not being made, and some checks as part of the job check process were not being made.
"I spoke to the Public Service Commission yesterday and to the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment yesterday about that.
"There was enough in the letter, not withstanding it was anonymous, that led me to believe that it was important that I assure myself that the rules for processing those, particularly Accredited Employer Work Visa applications, are being done thoroughly and that the allegations in the letter are investigated."
Over the past few weeks, he had been given assurances by Immigration NZ officials - as part of regular reporting to the minister - that Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) were being followed, he said.
"If the allegations I've received on Tuesday night are anything to go by, it appears that that may not be happening. I need to be assured that the systems in place are robust and those checks are being made."
The purpose of SPOs was to prove the employer was a real business which was operating and had been for a year. Little said he expected that to be carried out in every application but the whistleblower alleged that was not happening.
"There are requirements to check the integrity and genuineness of the business, that is part of the Standard Operating Procedures, and the allegation that I saw in the correspondence was that that was not being complied with in every case."
He said he was satisfied with the SPOs but the problem could be with compliance, which would form part of the review.
Little said he did not accept this was a resourcing issue.
"We knew that after the borders opened that we needed to put additional resourcing into Immigration because they'd scaled back, we put the additional resourcing in, but it is the job of management to make sure that the applications that come in ... that Standard Operating Procedures are being followed."
The Public Service Commission will appoint a reviewer - likely to be a former senior public servant.
There will be discussion about terms of reference, and the minister expects to hear back within a week or so from the Public Service Commission before the review gets underway.
In the meantime, the minister did not believe suspending the scheme was necessary.
In a statement, Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) chief executive Carolyn Tremain said they supported the review.
"It is important that there is trust and confidence in the immigration system and we remove opportunities for migrant exploitation. We are committed to improving any policies and processes deemed necessary.
"The outcome of this review will allow us to further refine the AEWV (Accredited Employer Work Visa) and inform settings to better respond to emerging issues.
"While the review is being carried out, we will continue our work, including the processing of applications and responding to cases of migrant exploitation as a priority."
Controversy of scheme in spotlight
Earlier this week, Immigration New Zealand revealed an investigation had been launched into the treatment of 115 Indian and Bangladeshi migrant workers, who had been living in overcrowded housing and left jobless.
It comes after 40 men were found cramped and hungry inside a three-bedroom home in the South Auckland suburb of Papakura last Sunday.
The Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) said the investigation was led by Immigration New Zealand's compliance team.
MBIE said officers had spoken to the workers, who arrived on accredited employer work visas they say they paid substantial money for.
However, they have been waiting months for paid work.
The ministry said the affected workers have been living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in six houses across Auckland.
Earlier this year, it was reported at least 100 migrant workers were dismissed by their employers after having paid thousands of dollars to offshore agents for their accredited employer work visas.
At the time, Immigration New Zealand had also said dozens of companies were under investigation.
As at 14 August 2023, Immigration New Zealand has approved 80,576 Accredited Employer Work Visa applications, and there are 27,892 accredited employers.
Offshore fraud not part of review
However, Little clarified that potential fraudulent activity happening overseas would not be part of the review announced on Thursday.
"In terms of the cases that have been in the media recently, where there's almost certainly fraud happening in some of the countries of origin, they will not be going that far. This is going to focus on the allegations that have been made in the correspondence I received on Tuesday night.
"I'm satisfied from other reporting I've had, from visa processing generally, that the system is capable of picking up fraud and irregularities and is being picked up in other visas."
Even before the Accredited Employer Work Visa scheme was implemented in May last year, initiatives to mitigate the risk of migrant exploitation in New Zealand were introduced, including easing the process to shift a migrant to another visa if they made a complaint, Little said.
"Migrant exploitation is a fact, and it's a reality and it has been going on for sometime and whether it's people on student visas, whether it's people on visitor's visas, there are fraudulent operators, certainly offshore, who have made promises to people, who have taken their money, brokered them to get access to New Zealand and promises that have been made to them have been found to be wrong.
"We have a website process that migrants can communicate in the language of their choice, likewise the 0800 number, translation service can be offered. That saw a sudden spike in complaints, it was a year later that we introduced the accredited employer work visa, the level of complaints that started a year before basically continued, which confirmed to me what we suspected which is that migrant exploitation is real here in New Zealand and it's been under-reported for a long time."
There were about 160 accredited employers who had either had their accreditation cancelled, or suspended, or under investigation, he said.
Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner Saunoamaali'i Karanina Sumeo on Friday said she welcomed the review.
"Te Kāhui Tika Tangata Human Rights Commission continues to receive reports and stories of migrant exploitation in both the Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme and AEWVS - casting serious doubts on our ethical commitments.
"To ensure impartiality, the scheme must be reviewed independent of the Government, especially given the view that worker exploitation isn't systemic. It only takes a few bad apples to fester and spoil the harvest."
She said she would like to see the terms of reference for the review include "explicit inclusion of human rights compliance with the right to work, right to equality, right to just and favourable conditions of work including freedom from slavery, inhumane treatment and discrimination".
"We must also include community voices especially unions in the design of the Terms of Reference and as part of the team overseeing the review.
"Now more than ever, urgent action is needed to draft modern slavery legislation to address the risks within labour supply chains in New Zealand and internationally while enforcing effective consequences for worker exploitation.
We want any employment scheme that brings migrant workers to Aotearoa to be sustainable and mutually beneficial while protecting, respecting, and supporting the realisation of human rights for all workers."