Criminals get permits to fill skills shortage
By COLIN ESPINER
The Press, New Zealand
Saturday, 02 August 2008
Convicted criminals are being allowed into New Zealand on work permits because of the country's shortage of skilled workers.
The Press has learnt that a German with convictions for dishonesty was given a permit to work as an electrician in Christchurch after the intervention of immigration lawyer Rob Davidson.
Electrician Frank Wieczorek was last year convicted of breach of trust, failure to provide proper accounts and failure to apply for insolvency in Germany.
He received a 12-month prison sentence, which was suspended by the judge.
Wieczorek's initial application for a work permit was turned down by the New Zealand Immigration Service (NZIS) because of his criminal record.
Under immigration law, convicted criminals sentenced to 12 months or more in prison fail the “good character” test for a work permit if the crime was committed within the past 10 years. Those sentenced to more than five years jail cannot apply for a work permit.
But in some cases the NZIS is granting permits if the applicants are in skills-shortage categories.
Wieczorek approached his Rakaia MP Brian Connell for help in gaining a special direction from Associate Immigration Minister Shane Jones to allow him to stay in New Zealand but Connell refused after checking the man's background.
Wieczorek then engaged Davidson, husband of Commerce Minister and former immigration minister Lianne Dalziel, and was successful in getting the NZIS to reconsider his case.
The service recommended Jones grant Wieczorek a work permit for 18 months, which he received in April this year.
Connell attempted to appeal to Jones to refuse the permit but was told by Jones in a letter last month that it was none of his business.
“I can only assure you that all immigration decisions about Mr Wieczorek have been and will be made in light of all available and relevant information,” Jones wrote.
Connell said yesterday that he was disappointed Jones had ignored his concerns and appalled that the NZIS was allowing convicted criminals into the country on work permits.
“Surely we're not so desperate for skilled staff that we have to import criminals? It amazes me that someone who has been convicted of theft as a servant, in a responsible position in a company, is still welcome in New Zealand,” Connell said.
The Press contacted Wieczorek yesterday but he refused to comment, referring the newspaper to Davidson.
Davidson said he had agreed to help Wieczorek because he believed he was of good character and his offending was at the minor end of the scale.
“Certainly, he was convicted and he was sentenced to a term in prison, but it was suspended and he was put on probation,” Davidson said.
Wieczorek had never hidden his convictions and had disclosed them to the NZIS.
Davidson said the law was unclear on whether criminals who gained suspended sentences were eligible to apply for work or residency but there was always discretion in any case.
“Character is the issue.” Davidson said. “He's not an axe murderer. It's his only brush with the law.”
One immigration source said a determining factor was Wieczorek's skills: “The thing that got this guy in is that there's a shortage of electricians.”
The NZIS said people with criminal convictions were not normally issued with a work permit. However, immigration legislation provided for exceptions, and each case was treated on its merits.
“The decision to overturn the original decision not to grant Mr Wieczorek a work permit was made by a senior official at the department and not by Shane Jones. There was no political involvement,” a spokesman said.
The spokesman said Wieczorek had volunteered his conviction, which had not appeared on his German police clearance.
Asked how many other people with convictions the department had allowed into New Zealand on work permits, the spokesman said the NZIS could not easily answer the question without “substantial collation and research”.