Immigration

NZ religious groups exploit migrant ‘clerics’

Alleged fraudsters are using religion - including yoga and meditation groups - to circumvent visa rules in the immigration system. The practice is likely to lead to worker exploitation. Teuila Fuatai reports.

A range of religious organisations are believed to be caught up in immigration scams - with a government report indicating serious problems such as people smuggling and worker exploitation facilitated through the religious worker visa.

Some of the groups are alleged to be bringing people into the country for religious or spiritual duties but then using them as fruit pickers or cleaners.

A Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment report, seen by Newsroom, analyses potential risks in the use of religious worker temporary and residence visas. Dated February this year, information from Immigration NZ, the Labour Inspectorate and Charities Services is used to examine employment and immigration-related offending among religious organisations.

While the findings are classed as “indicative”, myriad issues - including the vague requirements of the visa itself - are highlighted as possibly contributing to exploitation.

“There is a realistic possibility there are religious organisations using the RWC [religious worker category] visa stream to bring migrants to New Zealand for ulterior motives,” the report says.

Specifically, warnings for six organisations from across the religious spectrum indicate the visa is being used to bring people in to work in labour roles like fruit picking, to work for free, as well as below the minimum wage. At a more basic level, it is also believed to be used as way of gaining entry to the country.

A complaint made by three priests about a North Island organisation at the beginning of last year detailed the type of exploitation likely occurring. According to the report, the priests told the Labour Inspectorate they were promised weekly wages of $600, however, after arriving in New Zealand they were informed they would be paid at a lower rate, and would only receive the money at the end of their six-month tenure.

The priests also said the religious organisation which sponsored their visas confiscated their passports and air tickets for a short period. They were made to perform domestic duties instead of religious work. Domestic duties like cooking and cleaning are permitted as “secondary roles” under the religious worker visa rules. Furthermore, the priests alleged the organisation had been engaged in “this behaviour” for at least a decade.

Despite that, the Labour Inspectorate was unable to pursue the case to prosecution - closing its investigation because an employment agreement could not be found. Notably, the report acknowledges  “there is a realistic possibility unpaid work arrangements are being exploited by some religious organisations”. It also discusses how a lack of instructions around assessment of religious work visas could accomodate exploitation of holders of religious work visas.

“Immigration instructions for [religious worker category] visas do not contain directions on the assessment of unpaid work arrangements,” the report says. “There is a realistic possibility this is resulting in the acceptance of vague employment arrangements in visa applications that are making religious workers further vulnerable to exploitation.”

The report also touches on practical setbacks in investigating religious work visa fraud, like those experienced in the case of the three priests. “If there is no written evidence of an employer-employee relationship such as an employment agreement or written confirmation of salary, it can be difficult for the [labour inspectorate] to pursue a complaint.”

Concerns around meditation and yoga groups sponsoring migrants for religious worker visas are also raised. “[They] likely require robust assessment to determine whether the [religious worker category] migrants they are sponsoring are undertaking religious work,” the report says.

The structure of the religious worker visa, and how it may enable fraudulent activity is also examined. “RWC temporary visa applications do not have English language requirements [and] require limited supporting documentation which could be easily falsified such as testimonials of religious work.” A labour market check is also not performed during the visa verification process.

Meanwhile, a closer analysis of the 104 religious organisations flagged with Immigration NZ for potential immigration and/or employment law breaches resulted in six being classed as “likely high risk” for offending.

Newsroom has not identified individual organisations as some may still be under investigation. In addition to exploitation and employment law breaches, false or inflated job offers, smuggling or trafficking and “adverse holdings” in Charities Services records are among the potential risks for those who obtain a religious worker visa through one of the organisations.

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