Faroz Ali found guilty of 15 human trafficking charges in scam that enticed and exploited Fijians to work in New Zealand.By Olivia Carville
They were sold a dream: working in New Zealand and earning almost seven times their weekly wages in Fiji.
But, upon arrival into Auckland the false promises quickly unravelled.
They were forced to work illegally for long hours, sleep on the floor of overcrowded basements and were paid little, if anything.
Faroz Ali, 46, was the mastermind behind an elaborate human trafficking scam that enticed and exploited Fijian workers in New Zealand, and was today convicted after a three week trial in Auckland’s High Court.
Ali was found guilty of 15 people trafficking charges and guilty of 15 charges for aiding and abetting a person to unlawfully enter New Zealand. He was also found guilty of one charge for aiding and abetting a person to remain unlawfully in New Zealand.
At the beginning of the trial, Ali, a Fijian national with New Zealand residency, pleaded guilty to 26 charges of helping people breach their visa conditions and not paying his employees the minimum wage.
The 15 Fijian workers who fell victim to the scam were lured to New Zealand on the promise of $900 per week picking fruit.
They sold their family cows and borrowed thousands of dollars from their villages for the chance to work in high-paying jobs in New Zealand and give their families a better life.
They returned home empty-pocketed and ashamed.
This result marks the first successful trafficking prosecution in New Zealand history.
The maximum penalty for a human trafficking conviction is a prison sentence of 20 years imprisonment and a $500,000 fine, or both.
Human trafficking is the movement, deception or coercion of people for the purposes of exploitation.
Immigration New Zealand (INZ) recently vowed to crackdown on migrant worker exploitation and established a team of four ex-detectives to investigate top tier immigration offences.
This was the first trafficking case the newly formed Serious Offences Unit investigated. It took over 5000 hours and they gathered hundreds of pages of evidence.
One of the lead investigators, Carl Knight, travelled to Fiji a number of times and said many of the exploited workers lived in primitive conditions; some were from villages with only one tap with running water.
“This case was pretty bad when you look at the context of where these people lived and the sacrifices they made to get here,” Knight told the Herald.
“They will never have the ability to pay this money back,” he said.
The workers were enticed to New Zealand by advertisements in the Fiji Sun newspaper touting high-paying employment that were placed by travel agencies run by Ali’s wife and her twin sister.
During the course of the trial, the jury heard how Ali and the two sisters had worked together to lure the workers to New Zealand and charged them up to $4000 each for administration fees, work visas, flights, accommodation and food expenses.
The reality was the workers only received a one month visitor visa and their rent and food costs were deducted from the minimal wages they received when they arrived.
One woman testified that she was given $25 after pruning fruit every day for three weeks.
When one of the workers questioned Ali about the lack of pay, he said he was threatened with deportation.
“It was a rip off, man. It was a lie,” one of the witnesses testified at the trial.
“We were made fools. All of us,” another said.
The two sisters in Fiji recruited the workers, while Ali collected them from Auckland airport and put them to work either on his various construction sites in the city or sent them down to kiwifruit orchards in Tauranga.
“This was a rort, it was a scam and all three were in on it,” Crown prosecutor Luke Clancy told the jury during his closing address.
These workers were “established middle-aged men and women with families” and their sole purpose was to come here and work to send money back home to improve the lives of their families, Clancy said.
In addition to the excessive fees the trio charged each worker, the court heard how Ali benefited to the tune of $100,000 by exploiting the workers and failing to pay their statutory entitlements, including minimum wage and holiday pay.
One of the workers, Mohammed Feroz Ali, a Fijian van driver with two children, agreed to pay the travel agency thousands of dollars to work in New Zealand because he believed after a few months he would have saved enough money to fix the leaks in his house to prevent it flooding every time it rained.
Salvin Sonal Prasad, 21, told the court how his mother had sold their family cows and his dad had lent him money to help cover the $4000 fee for the travel agency.
When he arrived in New Zealand, he slept on the floor of the lounge at Ali’s house and worked from 5am to 5pm everyday for three weeks at various construction sites.
When Prasad asked Ali about his pay, he was told he would receive $800 a week. But when payday came, Ali gave him only $500 and said the rest was being deducted to cover his rent and food.
Prasad testified that when he challenged Ali about this he was told: “If you want, you can take the $500, otherwise I will report to police and you will get deported from here to Fiji.”
Shortly after, in mid-2014, Prasad returned home.
He still has not been able to pay his parents back.
“He betrayed me,” Prasad told the court.
Another worker, Suliana Vetanivula, a mother with seven daughters, had to borrow money from friends and family to afford the steep administration fees.
She was promised $900 a week working as a fruit picker in New Zealand; this amount was a small fortune when compared to the $130 a week her husband earned as a taxi driver in Fiji.
When she arrived in Tauranga for work, she was forced to sleep on the floor of the basement garage of her employer’s house with two other women and one man.
“There was no bedding, nothing was provided. It was cold, there was no mattress, pillows, blankets whatsoever,” Vetanivula said.
They worked almost everyday for the first three weeks and when they asked their employer, Jafar Kurisi, for their wages after the third week, the workers were told they actually owed him money for rent, food and petrol for driving them to the orchard each day.
Kurisi previously plead guilty to exploitation in relation to this case.
During her testimony, Vetanivula started to cry when she was asked to explain what happened when she returned home empty-handed.
“When I went back to Fiji people tended to look at me differently because I didn’t have any money to pay them back,” she said.
“At the moment I still owe a lot of people a lot of money.”
Ali did not take the stand during the trial, but his defence lawyer, Peter Broad, argued his client wasn’t guilty because he was not aware the workers had been deceived by his wife and sister-in-law in Fiji.
Ali admitted to exploiting the migrant workers and pleaded guilty to those charges, but he was not a trafficker because he had no idea how the workers came to arrive in New Zealand, what they had paid or what they had been promised, Broad said.
“All he wanted was workers in New Zealand,” he said.
There was no overt evidence that Ali was “living beyond his means” during the exploitation of these workers.
He lived in a standard flat in Papatoetoe and drove a standard vehicle and there was “no real signs of extravagance” in his life, Broad said.
When you boil it down, the key issue in the trial is quite a simple one, Crown prosecutor Luke Clancy said during his closing address.
“Was the defendant, Mr Ali, a knowing participant, an organiser in this scheme to mislead people and bring them to New Zealand to work? Or is he no more than a bad employer, unaware of what his partner and her twin sister were up to behind his back?”
“The suggestion Mr Ali was clueless and blissfully unaware about what they were up to behind his back falls apart. He knew, he was in it up to his eyeballs,” Clancy said.
Human trafficking is defined as modern day slavery and beyond labour trafficking it can include sex trafficking, kidnapping and abduction of victims for the purposes of sale or exploitation.
The New Zealand Law Society says the scope of human trafficking is growing globally and New Zealand’s at-risk industries include agriculture, hospitality, farming, nursing and the sex trade.
“Stories of abuse and exploitation are becoming more commonplace and high profile allegations have been made that trafficking has been taking place in New Zealand since 2004,” the society wrote in a report on modern day slavery.