Quake rebuild sparks job scam

A migrant scam is feared to be taking root in the underbelly of Christchurch's rebuild, sparking a government alert.

Reports of dozens of unlawful immigrants working on building sites around the city have begun to surface among national recruitment companies and within the city's migrant agencies.

One has heard claims of illegal migrants travelling by van from South Auckland who then approach construction companies as a group asking for a cheap, bulk wage.

Immigration New Zealand (INZ) said it was aware Christchurch's rebuild could entice illegal migrants and monitoring it had become a "priority" for the department. Random work-site inspections would be conducted around Christchurch this year, a spokesman said.

"We encourage anyone with any information about overseas workers working illegally to get in touch with us so that we can investigate and take any appropriate action," he said.

Advanced Personnel national operations manager Ryan Densem said he was aware of scores of migrants being illegally employed in Christchurch.

Many of the foreigners were on student visas or holiday permits and were being paid under the table, he said.

"There's building sites in Christchurch where I know for a fact that they have illegal migrants working," Auckland-based Densem said.

"Employers are taking advantage of them by paying them less and migrants are coming in and taking advantage of the New Zealand employment market and taking jobs that Kiwis would legally be entitled to."

He likened the migrant scam to the horticultural scandals in Hawke's Bay and Marlborough that exploited hundreds of illegal workers between 2004 and 2006. Hawke's Bay Contract Labour Services made $17 million contracting illegal immigrants to work in vineyards and orchards throughout the country and its directors were sentenced to three years' imprisonment in 2010.

Densem, who has hired almost 100 workers for Christchurch's rebuild, believed the employers were flouting the law because of a serious skill shortage in the city and to save money.

Kevin Eder, managing director of Tradestaff, said he had heard of small labour-hire companies operating out of South Auckland that dodged the law and "shopped themselves" around the construction industry.

"Pretty much Joe Bloggs gets a van full of 10 guys and says, ‘We have three carpenters, three hammer hands and three labourers and you can hire all of us for this much and I'll handle the wages for the boys'," Eder said.

It was "extremely likely" the workers were not paying tax and because the construction companies hired them through a separate agent they could try to deny liability, he said.

Christchurch's migrant networks had also caught whiff of the scam.

The Migrants Centre Trust and Peeto, the Multicultural Learning Centre, had both heard illegal immigrants were working in Christchurch's construction industry.

Patrick O'Connor, co-director of Peeto, said it was difficult to know the truth behind the claims but said "where there is smoke there is fire". He did not believe any large, reputable organisations were involved but said it was likely "small-time unscrupulous opportunists were masquerading as brokers".

Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce chief executive Peter Townsend was "very conscious of this particular risk" and had their "ears and eyes honed" to ensure employers were abiding by the law.

"We will be doing site checks and we will act on any information received by sources. It is a practice that will be jumped on."

Sunday Star Times