They are sold a dream, but instead some migrants to New Zealand are being exploited by scammers who sell them fake jobs and demand under-the-table payments for visas. In the first of a four-part investigation, 'The Big Scam', Dileepa Fonseka and Steve Kilgallon reveal the kingpin accused of orchestrating a sophisticated rort.
More than 80,000 people arrive in New Zealand on student visas every year. In 2014, Karamjeet Singh, from a family of Haryana Sikh farmers, was one of them. His Kiwi dream was to secure residency and own his own bistro.
Instead, he forked out $35,000 for a job that didn't exist – part of a scheme to dupe Immigration New Zealand into securing visas for migrants who wouldn't qualify for one legitimately.
Karamjeet paid his money to Gurpreet Singh: a Punjabi Indian who owned a string of Auckland restaurants, several liquidated companies, and had a reputation as a man who could get things done.
Multiple former clients say Singh runs a variation on a visa fraud scheme that appears rife among migrants; Stuff has uncovered several other examples and industry figures say there are many more.
Stuff's investigation has found three options taken by desperate migrants – all illegal:
* They can pay a flat upfront fee – paying up to $35,000 – to "buy" a job and so get a work visa attached to an employer.
* They can buy a fake job, paying purely for the paperwork, but receiving no income from their 'employer'.
* Or, they can secure a real job at the minimum salary required by Immigration NZ for a work visa – about $48,000 pa – but repay some or all of it back to their employer in cash, often leaving them with less than the minimum wage.
Recent law changes, giving students open visas at the end of their study, rather than only ones tied to employers, may have made the first scam much trickier – but migrant advocates say other scams will replace it.
A former immigration minister, Tuariki Delamere, says the schemes are "endemic" and Immigration New Zealand is doing little to stop them. An immigration lawyer of two decades' experience, Alistair McClymont, guesses "about a third" of his clients are paying their employers in some form for jobs. A workers' advocate, Sunny Seghal, likewise says the cases Stuff has uncovered are merely the "tip of the iceberg".
Immigration New Zealand don't argue with that analysis and say they are receiving an "ever-increasing" number of tip-offs about scams.
For those like Gurpreet, with a reputation in migrant communities as a fixer who can help when all legal avenues have failed, it certainly appears to be a lucrative business.
But those who turned to him in desperation lose out. Another former client, Harpreet Singh, who paid him $25,000, believes Gurpreet and his associates should be prosecuted: "They need to get punished, whatever they have done," he says. "They have ruined many people's lives."
Karamjeet Singh's path to becoming a new New Zealander is a familiar one: a one-year study course, hoping it would turn into a job and residency. Like many others, he instead found himself with a visa about to expire and no employment prospects.
So he called Gurpreet Singh (no relation). 'GP' is described as a laidback, warm character with an easy smile. He drives a black Chrysler and tells you he can make you a permanent resident of New Zealand for $35,000. One former employee – who, like Karamjeet, paid Gurpreet some $35,000 to secure visas – says: "We don't like him, but when he is in front of us, he is so nice and friendly, we don't say anything to him."
Karamjeet claims Gurpreet said he'd found him a full-time job in Wellington paying a salary of $42,000 a year – at that time, above the pay threshold to secure permanent residency.
The catch was the job would cost Karamjeet $35,000 – but he could pay in instalments. A work visa would cost $10,000, the rest would get him permanent residency, the right to stay here. If his application failed, he'd get a refund.
In Wellington, Karamjeet met a man called Peter Ryan. Ryan ran immigration consultancy Capital Immigration. He was also director and majority shareholder of a second company, BC International, which traded as Bite Consulting Group. According to several people Stuff spoke to, Ryan was also the immigration advisor who handled most of the visa applications.
In June 2015, Karamjeet duly secured a visa to work for BC International as a customer service manager. But Karamjeet says he was told Bite wouldn't pay him, because the company itself didn't do anything.
Instead, each time he got paid, Karamjeet had to return the money. And because it had already been taxed on the way through, he also had to repay that as well.
His visa said his job was in Wellington. But as his job wasn't real, Karamjeet was living in Gurpreet's house in Auckland, and surviving off his savings, money from his parents, and a cash-in-hand job at a west Auckland factory.
Karamjeet claims bank statements showing transfers, cash withdrawals and money transfers at foreign currency exchanges are him returning his monthly Bite salary back to Ryan through third parties, including via his Dad back in India.
The flaw was all those transfers happened in Auckland. He was meant to be in Wellington. Karamjeet says the plan was for Gurpreet to take his bank cards, and arrange for a friend in the capital to make transactions on his behalf, but he forgot.
So in April 2016, came an email from a seemingly-flustered Ryan to Karamjeet and Gurpreet, exclaiming: "What's going on all the bank statements have Auckland on them along with all activities in Auckland !!!!!!!"
When Karamjeet called Ryan to check on his application for permanent residency he claims Ryan told him Immigration New Zealand had asked for 10 years worth of salary and financial records from Bite Consulting and asked Karamjeet to withdraw his application.
Karamjeet says Ryan told him "many people would be affected" if questions were raised about Bite. He says Ryan told him Gurpreet would find a different way of securing his residency.
The letter offering Karamjeet his Bite 'job' includes the web address www.biteconsulting.co.uk in the letterhead, but a source who knows Ryan says Bite Consulting and the UK one are actually two separate companies. But he defends Ryan, saying: "I find it hard to believe Peter would do anything like that, he's an immigration advisor."
When Ryan is called and told we want to ask about Singh, he says he doesn't want to comment, asks if the call is being recorded, and says: "I don't know all the facts, I've heard all sorts of rumours, and I understand someone is making quite serious and arguably false allegations; I can't comment any further than that."
When it's pointed out that no allegations have yet been put to him, he says: "I'd prefer not to comment as well." Asked specifically about his panicked email about Karamjeet's money transfers in Auckland, he says he "wasn't involved in that". Asked directly if he was involved in an immigration fraud scheme with Singh, he says: "That is a serious allegation and one I thoroughly refute."
Gurpreet's main business was restaurants. He owned two in South Auckland – Pepperboard in Papakura (since sold), and Hungry Hopes in Buckland's Beach (since liquidated, a fate common with several companies linked to Gurpreet).
His wife, Meha Singh, bought another in Whangarei, Killer Prawn, using a company called Workforce NZ.
So the solution was to get Karamjeet a new visa as the restaurant's manager.
In his new job, he was paid $3750 a month – again, above the threshold to secure residency.
But a string of WhatsApp messages he gave us show multiple requests from Gurpreet and Meha for him to make large cash payments into accounts they controlled, or back into the business as 'cash sale'. He was allowed to keep just $400 a week as his salary – well below the threshold, and if he'd worked the 50 hours a week he claims, well below minimum wage.
Karamjeet says he was left to mostly run Killer Prawn on his own, where he says fellow employees would complain to him about Kiwisaver payments not being made.
It gave him the opportunity to take pictures of documents which appear to be a record of employees' payments and visa statuses – they show a series of names, with dollar amounts beside them along with references to specific immigration procedures and visas, such as 'IPT $1600' - a likely reference to the Immigration Protection Tribunal, 'Work Visa $1700' and 'Deportation Liability Notice $2800'.
Another former employee, Sonal (not her real name) worked in two of Gurpreet's restaurants and says he was rarely there and didn't seem concerned about their financial performance: "Sometimes it seems like they didn't worry about anything to do with the restaurant."
Immigration New Zealand seemed to be aware of all this. They sent Karamjeet a 10-page letter on May 25 last year explaining why they were declining his application for permanent residency (though he still had a valid work visa) – they were concerned about the restaurant's wage bill and records, and that if it was liquidated, it couldn't cover half of its debts. A lot of its cash flow also seemed to come from deposits from Meha Singh's company Mehar Hospitality, and it wasn't convinced these would continue.
Sure enough, Workforce NZ was liquidated in June this year, owing the IRD nearly $350,000. But it remains open – under new ownership.
It took the liquidators "several phone conversations" before Meha explained she had sold the business. It took them even longer to discover it had been sold to her husband, Gurpreet, and there had been no actual exchange of money. When they visited the restaurant, he demanded they leave.
Karamjeet, meanwhile, fears he'll have to leave New Zealand, and soon.
On August 14, he received an email from his lawyer, Ammar Ayoub of Legal Associates, a south Auckland law practice recommended to him by Gurpreet.
Ayoub wrote that a final attempt to renew Karamjeet's work visa (after his residency was rejected) had been declined last year. It meant Karamjeet had unwittingly been in the country illegally for months.
Ayoub said he'd not been able to contact Karamjeet at the time, and assumed he'd left the country because his bill was unpaid. Karamjeet says he owed only $200 of a $1750 bill and hadn't realised, because Ayoub hadn't invoiced him.
Now he lives with the constant threat of deportation and knows his family in India is deep in debt.
He's tried to get a refund from Gurpreet and Meha without success. In one conversation which he covertly taped, Meha promises to pay him back at $500 a week, saying: "I tried my best to help you, but it's just not your destiny, so I can't help you." She says his visa must have been rejected because they were tipped off but says "no one here would have because we have the best set-up".
Karamjeet likes New Zealand, loves the people and wouldn't turn down an opportunity to come back one day. But he no longer wants permanent residency. Instead, he'd like MBIE to use his evidence and that of the others Stuff spoke with to get people their money back and stop these scams: "It's in Immigration New Zealand's hands now."
Karamjeet is far from alone in having a story to tell about Gurpreet Singh.
For example, restaurant manager Sonal claims she paid Gurpreet $35,000 for visas for herself and her husband (as a dependent partner). Twice she was successful in securing work visas at Gurpreet's restaurants, Pepperboard and Hungry Hopes.
The third time, she was rejected because Immigration NZ felt the restaurants couldn't financially sustain all the visas lodged against it. She says Gurpreet apologised and promised her a partial refund – but didn't pay up.
During her three years working for Gurpreet, she says she repaid about $200 a week from her declared wages.
Sometimes, Gurpreet would apologise to staff for their visa issues – she thinks most were involved in the scheme in some way. "He would say 'Because you guys are suffering, I know that you don't like me' … We don't like him, but when he is in front of us, he is so nice and friendly, we don't say anything to him." And so despite everything, she admits a grudging affection for Gurpreet. "He's very friendly, very polite, always smiling, always talking to you as a friend. You never feel like he's [taking advantage of you]."
Harpreet Singh is less forgiving. He's since left New Zealand, disillusioned, and says he paid Gurpreet $25,000 for his job at Pepperboard to secure residency. Officially, he was employed as a duty manager there for two years - but he says he only worked there for about two months, and as a kitchen hand.
He's got 30 messages from Meha Singh requesting his wages be deposited back into Meha's companies, or that they be recorded as "cash sales" on the company books. He says she told him to get a job driving an Uber because Pepperboard couldn't pay him. Plagued by the fear of being caught by Immigration NZ, he became depressed. On the phone, he struggles to suppress tears. "They need to get punished, whatever they have done," he says. "They have ruined many people's lives."
What does Gurpreet Singh say to all this? Not much. When we visited him at his rented home in the Whangarei suburb of Kensington, he refused to address any of the allegations against him, except to say they were "unsubstantiated".
Speaking through a locked flyscreen, he repeatedly said he was "not keen to speak" to us, and demanded that we left the property or he would call police.
We told Immigration New Zealand about Gurpreet's schemes.
INZ's assistant general manager Peter Devoy said: "These are corrupt practices and New Zealand prides itself on not being a corrupt society and I don't want my New Zealand to be corrupt."
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