Author: Steve Kilgallon

Anil Verma sits in the sparse living room of the South Auckland house where he's now eight months behind on the rent, looks at his nine-months pregnant wife and says: "I don't have a single penny in my pocket."

Even Verma's former boss admits he owes him over $10,000 in unpaid wages (Verma believes it's nearer $20,000). 

But he's worried he will be deported before the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) hears the dispute. If he's not here, it will throw out the case.

Shepherd Ndarowa didn't want to talk about his debts to Anil Verma.

Verma was a fibre technician, working for a small company sub-contracting to Visionstream, the Australian-owned telecoms company which installs broadband internet in Auckland and Northland on behalf of Chorus.

His boss underpaid him and often cut his hours, down to as little as six per week. When Visionstream found out Verma had been exploited, it promised food vouchers, a new job with another contractor, and to intercede on his behalf with Immigration NZ. He got the vouchers - but not the rest.

Instead, Verma got a letter from Immigration NZ threatening him with deportation.

With no wages since January, he's relied upon friends, foodbanks and a tolerant landlord - but is keenly aware he cannot provide for his wife Sujarta or their unborn child. Looking at her, he says: "We are not from a rich family [so] it is really hard to borrow money [from them]. Sujarta had a lot of expectations of me, as a wife. And to be honest, I haven't done anything. My baby is on the way, and I don't have a single penny in my pocket."

The fibre broadband roll out has brought with it allegations of worker exploitation.

The fibre installation industry has been riddled with exploitation issues. It has adopted a model of using small sub-contractors, many of whom employ migrant workers on short-term visas.

Verma is but one example. He was on a student visa, working (legally) part-time at a South Auckland petrol station, when he got talking to one of his regular customers, a man named Shepherd Ndarowa. Ndarowa, a Zimbabwean migrant, part-owned a fibre company called GMGS and offered Verma work.

Verma says he started work in June 2016 as a "volunteer", working unpaid for three months before Ndarowa agreed to sponsor a work visa and gave him a contract promising him 40 hours of work a week at $20 an hour.

Shepherd Ndarowa at his home in Pokeno.

That visa eventually transferred to another company, wholly owned by Ndarowa, called S-Net Technologies, and the pay rate rose to $21.50.

Verma says he was paid properly for the first month. After that, Ndarowa would deduct money from his payslip to bring his rate down to minimum wage, and his hours fluctuated wildly. 

Verma says he'd often sit at home waiting for Ndarowa to pick him up for work, and his boss would arrive as late as midday or 1pm. "He was doing all the easy jobs by himself. When there's the need for digging and hard work, he would call me ... Just imagine, 10 or 15 hours' work a fortnight on minimum wages."

By then, he'd been back to India, and had an arranged marriage to Sujarta, who arrived in New Zealand on a visitor's visa. She cannot get a permanent visa until her husband's situation is resolved.

Migrant Workers Association advocate Sunny Sehgal says Verma should be shown compassion.

Verma says several times the couple visited Ndarowa at his house to plead for more hours and Ndarowa would placate him with promises it would improve. "It is the worst situation of our lives," he says. 

His visa was renewed for the final time in December 2018. A month later, Ndarowa gave him notice he would be made redundant on March 1, though he would be paid everything he was owed. "This was like a bomb on my house: I was so shocked. A month earlier I had my visa approved - so how had the company become so weak in a month it cannot support me?"

Verma could not work for anyone else, because his essential skills visa said he could be employed only by S-Net.

Anil Verma: "I am jobless, hopeless."

On March 6, Verma says, Ndarowa backflipped, offering him a new contract, but only if he agreed to forgive the debts. He refused. His final pay packet was in February, for just seven hours' work.

Verma says he then offered to settle with Ndarowa for just the money he was owed on the work he'd done, not what he was owed for all the contracted hours he'd sat idle. Ndarowa, he says, offered a settlement of $5000, in instalments.

So Verma filed a claim with the ERA. He says he also informed Immigration NZ (INZ) he was having difficulties with his employer.

E tu union organiser Joe Gallagher: Visionstream are the worst, he says.

In an August submission to the ERA, Ndarowa's lawyer, Simon Greening, admitted arrears of $11,600 and promised his client would pay. He hasn't.

Verma produces text messages to show that as late as September, Ndarowa was making unfulfilled promises of further work. Ndarowa deposited $200 into his account on his birthday.

When approached at his home in Pokeno, south of Auckland, Ndarowa confirmed he had lost his sub-contract, was looking for work, and said he had no money. "It's an issue that is being handled by my lawyers, so probably I think it is appropriate that you talk to Simon [Greening]. I am sorry I can't say anything at the moment." Greening did not return calls for comment.

Migrant Workers Association advocate Sunny Sehgal, who is helping Verma, says Ndarowa has no excuse for not paying up. "If he has no money to pay, he should sell his house, sell his car, and file for bankruptcy: our client has been suffering since January this year with no money to eat, he is living on charity … Why should only one party suffer and the other party get away with saying they have no money?

"His employer has been saying for six months that he is willing to settle the dispute and even at the last minute he is reneging on his promises."

The case won't go before the ERA until December 3, where Sehgal will seek payment of the lost wages and penalties for unjustified dismissal to a total of $80,000. 

But the ERA's Tessa Mulholland emailed Verma to say that "investigation meeting" cannot proceed unless he's there in person, and he could not give evidence remotely (if he has been deported). 

INZ says it is talking to Verma about his options, but made no commitment about allowing him to stay.

'The worst employer in New Zealand'

Chorus and Visionstream have been dogged with complaints about their fibre broadband rollout. 

In April, Chorus admitted failing to prevent migrant exploitation by sub-contractors, and acknowledged more than 100 sub-contractors may have broken labour laws. But a month later, it signed a new contract with Visionstream, a move E tū union organiser Joe Gallagher called "unbelievable" at the time. An earlier report by consultants MartinJenkins into Chorus' data installation practices said more than half of the 1600 workers on the job were migrants on temporary work visas.

One former Visionstream sub-contractor told Stuff that small broadband owner-operators "reckon they are getting less and less work and can't stay afloat as the new migrants get all the jobs: Visionstream are prioritising them as they do all the jobs cheaply."

When Verma and Sehgal met with Visionstream's resource manager, Emma Nightingale, in June, she sent an email saying: "I will talk to INZ in relation to Anil's visa and his concerns in relation to his wife's visa expiring." She also promised training and said: "We have a director who is happy to discuss with Anil a crew position in Auckland which would support the requirement of his visa."

Verma got the training, but was never offered a job. INZ confirmed its only dealing had been with Verma and Sehgal, and not Visionstream.

Verma says that when INZ began threatening to deport him, he was shocked because he assumed Visionstream had made representations on his behalf. He also says he wasted three months waiting for a job that never came. 

"Visionstream should take some sort of accountability and responsibility for this whole situation," says Sehgal. "Anil's case is one of the worst ones [I've seen], if you look at his family and financial situation. Visionstream gave him false promises and false hope, and in the end, have done nothing."

Neither Nightingale nor Visionstream communications manager Alicia Fox were able to respond to questions about the case.

E tū's Gallagher says he considers Visionstream "the worst employer in New Zealand". He says while Chorus and Visionstream have recently axed 38 sub-contractors, "those people are just a product of a broken system". 

He says Verma's situation is the inevitable outcome of a system where contractors operate on very slim margins and with the risk of Visionstream cutting their work flow, penalising them for complaints or ripping up their contracts if they complain.

Gallagher says he's discussing a potential class action of aggrieved contractors against Visionstream. But with 78 per cent of Auckland contractors being migrants, it's difficult to unite them under one voice. 

"The MartinJenkins report made it quite clear there is no mechanism in place for managing contractors properly, which is why you've got all these problems of exploitation and people working for free, because they are vulnerable and tied to work permits," he says. "I said I couldn't believe it [when Visionstream's deal was renewed] because I still think their contract should be torn up and they should be exited from New Zealand."

Plea for compassion

Sehgal believes Verma should be granted a stay of execution in the form of a six-month open work visa to either find a job, or to help his wife in the early months of child-rearing before going back to India. "Deporting Anil would be Immigration doing this dodgy employer a favour," Sehgal says.

On September 6, Verma received what INZ says is a standard letter, asking him to contact the department within 14 days to either prove he has applied for a new temporary visa, or show evidence he has made arrangements to leave New Zealand. If he did neither, he may be liable to be deported.

INZ has given him some hope, however. In a statement, visa services manager Michael Carley says it has  "been made aware of Mr Verma's situation … and we are currently in discussion with him about his options given the nature of his situation".

Sujarta Verma has been waiting five months for a decision on her application for a partnership visa. Carley says no decision will be made on her visa until her husband's case is settled, as the visa applications are tied. 

Carley says the department recognises migrant workers are particularly vulnerable and may be reluctant to report exploitative behaviour, particularly if they are breaching visa conditions. INZ now offers some whistleblowing migrants leave to stay in New Zealand while they seek a new visa. Legally, Essential Skills visa holders must leave New Zealand or secure a different visa if their tied employment ends. 

Anil Verma hopes the department will show some mercy. "I am jobless, hopeless. I don't know what to say."

Note from Nighthawk.NZ:

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