Cellphone repairers eyed for visa fraud

A Government intelligence report has flagged mobile phone repair businesses as another industry where migrant exploitation is likely rife, with gaps in border controls contributing to labour law breaches.

“The mobile phone repair industry is a likely high risk for immigration offending and minimum labour standard breaches."

The opening line sets the tone of a Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment intelligence report titled Concerns with mobile phone repair businesses. 

The seven-page document, viewed by Newsroom, provides an overview of the sector and why its particular set-up seems conducive to migrant exploitation. It also contains brief profiles of seven companies suspected of labour and immigration breaches. Newsroom has not named the companies as some may still be under investigation.

While the report - dated February this year - is specific to the mobile phone repair industry, the exploitative and fraudulent practices it highlights are not too different from those outlined in other Government intelligence reports looking at migrant exploitation. Non-payment of workers, pay below the minimum wage, non-compliance with visa conditions and employer pay-offs for inflated job offers that increase the likelihood of securing a visa are common themes in other reports covering a range of industries and business types - including fast-food outlets, religious organisations, tertiary institutions, sex work and horticulture companies.

Notably, each of the reports also look at how information provided in visa applications impacts on the Immigration NZ visa verification process.On mobile phone repair businesses, the report highlights the likely prevalence of “inflated job descriptions” in the industry.

“Many of the duties performed by mobile phone repair technicians do not require tertiary qualifications to complete,” the reports says. “This can mean roles do not accurately align with Australian and New Zealand Standard of Qualifications descriptions. As an example, employees working at small kiosks or shop fronts are unlikely to have the space or access to technology to complete hardware related duties. Employers are subsequently likely to inflate duties or attempt to use technical jargon to enhance roles in support of visa applications.”

While the mobile phone repair report does not expand any further on fraudulent visa applications, another report looking at relationship fraud and partnership visas addresses the issue head-on. In that report, called Fraudulent use of partnership visas, special attention is paid to how performance objectives for immigration officers make close scrutiny of visa applications difficult.

Specifically: “Immigration branches are also required to ensure 90 percent of temporary visa applications are decided within 25 working days. The targets disincentivise IOs [immigration officers] from questioning documentation provided, requesting additional evidence, or conducting higher levels of verification."

“Reducing the opportunity of scrutinising risk indicators at the visa application stage for the purpose of timeliness measures has implications for maintaining the integrity of the immigration system. The impacts of failing to identify fraud at the visa stage are transferred to other parts of the immigration system, including investigations and compliance, where fraud is more difficult to identify and resolve,” that report says.

For the mobile phone repair industry, “low start-up costs” are also identified as making it attractive to those looking to facilitate visas for those wanting to live in New Zealand. “[The] businesses are relatively low cost to start-up and typically operate out of mall kiosks and/or small shop fronts in multiple locations," the report says. Under that operating model, “business hierarchy” can be easily replicated across multiple sites. Staff who require visas can then be hired through the Skilled Migrant Category under positions like “retail management”. (Note: A retail management position no longer meets the job criteria for a skilled migrant visa. The latest skilled shortage list was published in February).

The report also highlights the cycle of fraud which likely occurs in the sector: “Migrant workers in retail management positions who have obtained visas via fraudulent means are likely to in turn supply fraudulent job offers to migrant workers.”

In response to questions about migrant exploitation the Minister of Immigration Iain Lees-Galloway acknowledges the complexity of the situation.

“An accurate assessment of the scale of exploitation is difficult, as a lot is purposefully hidden,” he says.

“An increasing number of joint compliance operations have been carried out between Immigration NZ and the Labour Inspectorate, and the Ministry is also working closely with other agencies. These operations have targeted the fishing, retail, hospitality, construction, horticulture and viticulture industries.”

Lees-Galloway, who has previously called for an inquiry into migrant exploitation, agrees improvement of visa verification processes are important in preventing migrant exploitation. While it is not the only available tool, “we need to get these processes right”, he says.

A $34 million increase in funding to Immigration NZ over the next four years for increased screening and assessment of passengers, and early identification of exploitation risks, should help. Lees-Galloway also points to an additional $20.9 million in operating funding made available in this year’s Budget for Immigration NZ operations.

“My officials are currently consulting publicly on changes to immigration fees and levies aimed at ensuring that Immigration NZ is properly resourced to undertake visa verification,” he says.

Each year, the Government hauls in about $200 million in visa application and residence fees. Latest figures from MBIE show about $155 million was earned in fees in the 10 months to March 31.

Read more:

Immigration and education system under siege

NZ religious groups exploit migrant 'clerics'

Pizza Huts profiled for migrant exploitation

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