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Will the new KiwiBuild visa cut the mustard ?

Will the new KiwiBuild visa cut the mustard for migrant workers?

Opinion piece: Leading Auckland immigration lawyer Aaron Martin responds to the latest news about changes proposed to the KiwiBuild visa announced by the government yesterday.

Yesterday the Government announced it is revising the KiwiBuild visa scheme and changing immigration settings to try to address New Zealand’s shortage in construction workers. But will these changes go far enough to address the issues?

New Zealand as a destination is a difficult sell even for large construction companies. It takes a lot to get a builder from the UK to move to New Zealand, where the cost of living is high but the wages are not.

It’s even harder if you can’t offer that person the certainty of residence. If the potential talent that might be recruited using these schemes can’t get a residence visa, the ability of employers to attract that talent will be compromised.

The new schemes need to dovetail into the residence visa policies. It’s crucial we prioritise this to ensure there is not a cohort of disappointed tradespeople here on work visas with nowhere to go.

The proposed changes announced yesterday will involve:
• modification of the existing accreditation status regime and the approval in principle scheme for employers
• modification of the existing labour hire accreditation regime
• development of a skill shortage list for the building and construction sector.

These proposals are really just another variation on a theme, or a tweaking of existing policies. So why is it going to take six months to get operational? We can only hope it’s an indication there will be significant industry consultation to ensure the bars to entry on these new rules will be set at realistic levels.

The existing accreditation status model is tailored to larger business operations that have sophisticated HR departments devoted to recruitment and retention. The model includes a plethora of supporting polices that direct HR operations.

I’m concerned that MBIE officials will set the entry to this accreditation regime again for the large industry players. This will make it difficult for small- to medium-sized developers who specialise in residential construction to enter the scheme.

If this happens, the larger institutional home builders will have an unfair competitive advantage. But perhaps that’s what the Government would like: it’s much easier to control and police an industry sector when it’s made up of a few larger players.

The construction sector has had some bad press lately around compliance with immigration requirements for good employment practices. There is a strong incentive for the Government to take control of the situation.

As with the current scheme, the proposed new accreditation status programme will no doubt allow MBIE (and the labour inspectorate) to audit the participating companies. This gives MBIE access not only to information about employment relations/labour law compliance but also to the financial data of the participating companies.

This gives central Government serious levers to control an industry that is crucial to delivering on a key election promise.

It is also essential that the proposed shortage list is developed very carefully. The current skill shortage lists suffer from two problems:
1. The qualification criteria require overseas qualifications to be comparable to current qualifications available on the New Zealand qualification framework
2. The shortage lists are fixated on a visa applicant having a formal qualification.
For example, for an employer/employee to apply for a visa for a carpenter, the applicant/employee must have:
• A certificate at NZQF Level 4, or a higher qualification, which includes the credit and knowledge requirements of the New Zealand Certificate in Carpentry (Level 4).

These rules make it hard for those who have undertaken building qualifications in their home country perhaps many years ago but have substantial industry experience. An applicant in this situation would struggle to gain a visa using the shortage list because their qualification may not be comparable to the current New Zealand qualification listed.

MBIE needs to realise that practical experience in the trades can often be a more sought after ‘qualification’ than academic qualifications. It is crucial that we give employers access to people qualified by their experience.

Most importantly, there needs to be a pathway to residence for this international talent. Most workers in this sector don’t move here just for “the work”. They come to stay. But the current residence rules don’t make that easy if you are qualified by experience. Which means these new changes have a long way to go to make it an attractive option for sought after skilled migrant workers.


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