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Peter: On 'DeLegitimizing Palestinians Via New Zealand'

Published on 09 September 2014, by M. Tomazy.
Peter sent this email to AW360 Editor:
Hi there.

Historically New Zealand's ambassador in Turkey has traditionally served both Palestine and Israel, so I ask why has this changed suddenly?
As I don't believe in coincidences I'm wondering whether prior knowledge of the investigative story shown on national TV last night may have been the motive for publicly slapping down the New Zealand Government for casting Israeli activities in a negative light.

I'm personally hoping the problem won't go away and will become a main theme during the final 4 weeks of the election campaign here, however, as the main daily newspaper, The Herald, made no mention of either story today, I won't be holding my breath.

All the best.

Peter  E***** [family name was removed by the editor for privacy issue]

Dead Sea alleged visa fraud revealed

One of the biggest stories on Campbell Live this year has been the exposé of the Dead Sea cosmetic kiosks - the stands in Westfield shopping malls up and down the country, staffed by young Israelis, selling beauty products from their homeland.

After our investigation into their appalling predatory sales tactics, the kiosks were removed and the staff fled the country within days. 

We've been investigating why and what we've discovered is a sophisticated fraud on an unprecedented scale. 
In fact, it calls into question the trust and validity of our working holiday scheme with Israel, where New Zealanders, taxpayers and the Government have been taken advantage of for years, and for millions of dollars. 

Israeli workers selling Dead Sea cosmetics have been visiting New Zealand for the last decade and questions about the legality of their work permits is nothing new. But in 2011, the New Zealand Government began a reciprocal working holiday scheme with Israel - it made coming here, and working here, a whole lot easier for Dead Sea staff. 

The kiosks were run by a combination of four companies - Dead Sea Beauty, LVS Retail, ReiRei and New Skin Limited. 

They share directors and shareholders, all based in the United States, but in New Zealand they all have the same address and the same administration manager - Aviva Raisun. 

She runs the companies, controls the bank accounts and pays the tax - she also orders stock, rents houses, organises staff conferences and hires kiosk employees, who are employed full-time on working holiday visas. 

A working holiday visa allows for work for three months at a time - but you can't do the same job twice. 
Campbell Live has discovered that the kiosks companies were deliberately flouting the law by employing staff for up to a year – reporter Anna Burns-Francis took this evidence to Peter Elms, general manager of Immigration New Zealand. 

"I think the information you've shown is highlighted what is potentially a rort in the system," says Mr Elms. "Clearly there's information here that warrants further investigation". 

Immigration New Zealand had no idea the visa programme was being deliberately exploited. 
"The purpose is that you can take up employment at any stage during the 12 months you're here, so long as the employment is for no more than three months with that particular employer," says Mr Elms.

After showing Mr Elms the evidence that they were all working here on working holiday visas and not just for three months, but for the whole 12 months, he was very surprised, but was aware that in the past, people have done this. 
An example of one of the Dead Sea Spa employees that took full advantage is Ben - he had four identical employment records. 

Every three months he signed a "new" contract and rotated round to a "new" company, but in reality it was the same job in same place with the same employer. Mr Elms agrees that this is a serious issue. 

"The documentation actually identifies the next company before they move to the next company, so on the face of it there's some serious concerns there," says Mr Elms. "That's the type of information that we'd be really interested in having, and we will follow up on that."

There are only 200 places on the Israeli working holiday scheme and when they folded, the kiosks had 78 staff either working or just finished - all on current on holiday visas. 
The people behind this scam - based in New Zealand and Israel - have been taking advantage of a system with few checks and balances. 

"We don't actively monitor visa holders while they're in the country here, that's not the case," says Mr Elms. "We do get allegations now and then of people breaching all manner of types and we do investigate those allegations, but nothing in particular for the working holiday scheme". 

But there were clues that authorities should have picked up on - every month, all four companies filed tax returns on the same day, signed by the same person - Ms Raisun - and with the same company address. 

Why did Inland Revenue not raise any flags with Immigration? 

It was obvious there were dozens of Israelis on working holiday visas, being paid minimum wage and continually swapping companies. 
"From an immigration perspective, if we identify an employer or a number of individuals are deliberately manipulating policy for their own ends then we will take it very seriously," says Mr Elms. "But [we] got no heads up from Inland Revenue that this was going on, [and] we work with the Inland Revenue on a regular basis".

He explains that with current inquiries that are ongoing, it'll be an interesting conversation with Inland Revenue. 
The next question is why Inland Revenue never realised just how much the kiosk staff were really earning. It wouldn't comment for this story, but the companies' tax returns show it was paying minimum wage.

So then how did these Israelis, straight out of the army, make so much money? 
Because the markup on products thousands of New Zealanders bought is almost unbelievable. Take the Optima Plus face cream - sold to the New Zealand customer for $449, its wholesale cost is just $14.88. That's a markup of 2,923 percent. 

Receipts sighted by Campbell Live add up to tens of thousands of dollars from each kiosk, each month. 
They were on track to make a gross profit of $6,000,000 this year, and every sale equalled commission for the kiosk workers. 

Ben managed to pay for a round-the-world holiday after he left New Zealand this year, visiting South Africa, Greece and Amsterdam. He and the other workers were all hired by a company in Israel called Virgo. 

Virgo's selling point is the huge amount of money young Israelis can make overseas - offering the opportunity to earn a minimum income of $5,200 per month working in Florida, New Zealand or Australia. 

It's all about the mountains of money, as there are no tax returns for the cash payments. 

Another example is Natalie, who finished up working in New Zealand earlier this year. 

Her tax return for last November declared an income of just $3,200 for the month. 

But that same month, Virgo in Israel was celebrating her outstanding commission earnings on its public Facebook page - $4000 in one week.

It just doesn't add up. 

Mr Elms says Immigration's interest is not in the individuals who are coming here, working here and selling Dead Sea products; their interest in this is the people who are organising this scam. 

"If this is a scam, if they are manipulating the immigration policy for their own commercial interest, it's those people that need to be worried." 

The woman who oversaw this enormous operation, employing hundreds of Israelis, generating millions of dollars, is now lying low.

Ms Raisun and her lawyer didn't respond to our request for an interview for this story - neither did the owners of the other companies involved. 

Immigration has launched an investigation.

Key events in the Dead Sea Spa saga:
  • June 25 – Revelations an 82-year-old woman was bullied into buying $5000 worth of cosmetics – mostly wrinkle cream for a range of different skin types;
  • June 25 – Kiwi Income Property Trust, which owns the Lynnmall shopping centre in Auckland, evicts Dead Sea Spa:
  • June 26 – Revelations a man with short-term memory loss was charged more than a dozen times for $13,000-worth of Dead Sea Spa products;
  • June 26 – An autistic man, Maartin van der Neut, says Dead Sea sold him $4400 worth of cosmetics in just half an hour, his EFTPOS cards charged five times, with $1000 unaccounted for – not detailed on the receipts;
  • June 30 – Campbell Live talks with former Dead Sea workers, who expose the company's illegal recruitment practices;
  • July 1 – Westfield shopping centres announce they will no longer host Dead Sea Spa kiosks.

Clarification: The kiosks in shopping malls around New Zealand were often branded ‘Gratiae’ and ‘Premier Dead Sea Spa’, however Campbell Live now understands this was branding from a previous business arrangement. We have been advised, that neither the Gratiae and Premier brands, nor the Dead Sea Premier Cosmetics Company based in Israel, have had any knowledge or business dealings with the distributor in New Zealand since 2010. The company also wishes to make clear it has had no connection with any Dead Sea

Campbell Live