Facebook used to recruit illegal migrant workers

4:05 pm on 16 September 2016

A human trafficking scam that's carried on undetected for years is claimed to be using Facebook to lure migrants into jobs paying less than $10 an hour on New Zealand orchards.

A man from Vanuatu works in a Hawke's Bay orchard under the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme.

First Union says underpaying workers is systematic across some North Island orchards. Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades

Investigations have been launched after a Filipino man, who paid his first month's wages as commission to an offshore organiser, raised the alert.

First Union organiser Dennis Maga, who knows the Filipino orchard worker who has since returned home, said he was looking into the case with assistance from the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

"This is some sort of human trafficking because the orchard managers are consciously targeting those vulnerable migrants, luring them to work in that industry, knowing that they are quite desperate.

"Based on the information we found out from a friend of ours, who actually worked in one orchard company in Waikato, we realised that this is quite systematic because it's also actually happening in other orchard companies in the North Island."

The orchard worker who spoke up had been friends with another Filipino man who had worked on an orchard in New Zealand back in 2011.

That man had returned home and began recruiting using Facebook, and was now operating out of South Korea, Mr Maga said.

"These are not recruitment agents," he said. "They don't have a company, they're not registered."

"What they do is just simply using Facebook to communicate with the orchard managers and recommend their friends or other recruits to come here under the guise of visitors' visa."

Mr Maga said the web extended to a "handful" of local Indian people in Waikato who collected a cut of the workers' pay to ferry them to the orchards at weekends.

At one orchard he said he had been told of 20 or 30 people being delivered for work this way, while others lived on the orchard in a crowded house or a caravan with broken windows.

News of the scam comes after Faroz Ali yesterday became the first person convicted of people-trafficking in this country, and after RNZ reported on widespread scamming of migrants for fake jobs in New Zealand.

A warning about fruit-picking scams has also gone out in Australia, after 34 Malaysians were locked up in Sydney's Villawood Detention Centre after being caught working illegally in jobs they paid agents in Malaysia to arrange.

Mr Maga said the orchard scam in New Zealand targeted those on visitor visas who were not allowed to work by law, and international students struggling to survive on the 20 hours of paid work they were allowed to do each week.

He believed all those involved knew it was illegal.

MBIE has been asked to comment on the case.

Kiwifruit employers 'know their responsibilities'

Kiwifruit growers said they did not believe human trafficking in the orchard industry was widespread, but were disappointed to hear of such claims.

Kiwifruit Growers Incorporated chairman Doug Brown said the industry employed about 10,000 permanent workers and 8000 seasonal workers.

He said the group made sure employers knew their responsibilities.

"We are spending a lot of time and effort educating growers. We've actually been working on a pilot to provide ID cards for workers, so growers can have confidence that the workers on their orchards are legitimate."

Mr Brown said any concerns must be dealt with by the labour inspectorate.

AUT business school researcher Danae Anderson told Morning Report today there was no way to measure how widespread the problem of undocumented migrant workers was.

She said she had found compliance in the horticultural sector was about 85 percent to 90 percent in 2012.

Ms Anderson said labour and immigration inspectors struggled to pinpoint who was exploiting the workers.

"It's very difficult to monitor or enforce undocumented workers because the location of them, what sort of work they are doing, is very difficult to actually access."

Ms Anderson said a lot of the workers were international students and other migrants who would otherwise have no income.

Pipfruit New Zealand reacts

Meanwhile, apple and pear growers also said they were not aware of human trafficking in their industry or of international students being employed as fruit-pickers for low pay.

Pipfruit New Zealand chief executive Alan Pollard said he was unaware of any Indian students being employed in orchards.

"That labour inspectorate does a comprehensive audit of all of those businesses every year to ensure that the employment practices are clearly what they should be," he said.

"And none of our businesses would risk losing that accreditation - it would just be too damaging for them."

He said about 80 percent of growers needed access to seasonal workers from the Pacific to get fruit picked on time, and could not afford to lose their accreditation.

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