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Is Popular Opinion Driving Immigration Policies?

Immigration Minister Faafoi throws employers and migrant workers a bone, but the last-minute changes to INZ policy are, as usual, self-serving and short-sighted.

The government has just announced that it will extend visas for 18,000 lower-paid migrant workers to address labour shortages in hospitality, tourism, and farming. They are also delaying the rollout of the Accredited Employer Work Visa scheme until mid-2022.

From Monday 19 July, the maximum duration of Essential Skills visas for jobs paid below median wage will increase from 12 months to 24 months. (Jobs paid above the median wage already have a maximum of three years.) Until 28 August 2021, workers seeking an extension must complete a paper form that will be made available on INZ’s website. From 30 August, applications may be submitted online.

The application process will also be simplified – no labour market test or resubmission of police or medical certificates – for workers remaining in their current full-time role. New roles will still require a labour market test, however, as will roles being moved to other regions. These changes apply up to the middle of next year, though an exact date has yet to be announced.

Not great, but better than nothing

These changes, while welcomed by 57,000 visa holders and their employers, do little to address the underlying issues. Once again, they are a stopgap reaction to the pressure of public opinion surrounding the government’s immigration policies but show no sign of real remediation.

Minister Faafoi’s claim that the government wants to “make the most of the skills we have in the country” is contradictory, given that the extension applies only to low-skilled jobs, while Minister Nash’s comment that they are “listening to business concerns” is tone deaf. They have listened only to concerns that fit their agenda, which is cutting back on immigration, regardless of the cost to New Zealand.

The government’s ideology is flawed because we simply don’t have locally skilled people available, and as long as they cling to the notion that we do, we can’t actually fix the problem.

What businesses are concerned about

1. Businesses need a pathway to allow their skilled workers to obtain residence and remain here permanently. With the closure of the Work to Residence category coming this November, there will be none, and there’s been no suggestion that currently accredited employers will be able to obtain Work to Residence visas beyond November.

If they’re delaying the introduction of the Accredited Employer Work Visa, why can’t employers get accredited under the old regime? And why can’t workers in those businesses obtain Work to Residence visas after November? Is this announcement meant to suggest that these restrictions may be lifted? I think not.

2. Because of the border closure, the pool of skilled workers in New Zealand is too small – regardless of how many existing staff members you train. If you need two engineers but can only find one locally despite a year of advertising, you won’t solve the problem by trying to train your HR manager to become an engineer. The government believes that training is the answer to everything, but it just isn’t so.

What the government is telling us

Minister Faafoi’s claim that it’s not about the numbers means he doesn’t understand how business works. For businesses who want to grow, it’s precisely about the numbers... of staff they can get. They don’t have another three years to wait for the next cohort of university graduates.

The delay in the Accredited Employer Work Visa regime shows the government is basing its immigration policy on populism with a generous dash of selective hearing. It also shows that steps to prevent migrant exploitation can be put on hold if it suits the government to do so.

The new work visa regime has been poised for introduction for over two years. After hearing the message and getting themselves ready, employers have once again had the rug pulled out from under them. They are left in limbo with no answers as to how they can access the skills they need for continued business growth.

Where employers are filling a vacancy, a labour market test will still be required before a migrant worker can be hired. If you have a vacancy and can’t find New Zealanders to do the work, how do you get the needed skills? You can’t get them through the border, and that’s the real problem New Zealand is facing.

What the government isn’t telling us

Ending immigration to New Zealand will kneecap many businesses. Faafoi’s desire for a “more self-reliant labour market” sounds like the government wants to turn New Zealand into the North Korea of the South Pacific. The nebulous quality of the announcements is a concern, and they’ve made no mention of delaying the median wage increase to $27 an hour for skilled worker visas.

As if that weren’t enough, Australian companies are aggressively recruiting in New Zealand. Higher wages and the certainty of a pathway to residence will see New Zealand employers losing staff. It’s already happening and will accelerate.

Changes to immigration policy seem to be motivated by a desire to be popular with certain sectors of the electorate. Perhaps Labour’s large cohort of PR people is writing the policy and telling INZ how it’s going to be, which spells disaster. All I’ve heard for the past year is employers expressing regret over voting for this government and how they’re determined to vote them out. This announcement won’t change that, despite the wishful thinking of several ministers.

The one silver lining

If you’re a migrant worker or an employer, you now have the chance to apply for 2-year visa.

Anyone seeking to renew their current work visa so they can continue employment can do so without the need for company advertising, and that will be the case until the middle of next year.

My recommendation: If you have employees whose visas will expire between mid-2022 and the end of 2023, apply for new work visas before this change expires so you have a window of opportunity.

Further information:

Aaron Martin – Principal Immigration Lawyer at New Zealand Immigration Law

Aaron Martin is one of New Zealand’s most highly regarded immigration law practitioners. He has extensive experience in assisting individuals, SMEs, and large multinational corporations.

With over 20 years in general legal practice and a thorough working knowledge of relevant tax law and commercial law, Aaron is skilled in assisting investor-category applicants and migrants planning to establish a business in New Zealand.

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