Lost labour: The inequities in NZs immigration policy

If you’ve got a spare $10 million, gaining NZ residency is a cinch. For others, though, there’s a frustrating wait for visa applications to be processed, and changing rules for employers to navigate. By Janet Wilson.

If anything symbolises the inequities in New Zealand’s immigration policy, it was the revelation that Larry Page, the co-founder of Google who isreputedly worth $166 billion, had been granted residency.

Page, the world’s sixth-richest person, applied for residency under the Investor Plus category, which means he has to invest $10 million over three years and spend time here before permanent residency is granted.

The news that he had vaulted up the residency ladder would have come as an added frustration to the thousands of immigrants stuck in stalled residency queues. These are the GPs, teachers, aged-care workers, dairy workers and tech workers – some of whom are losing hope in investing their futures here and returning home. If Page intends to invest in the IT industry in this country, he will have to contend with the fact that it is already short of 10,000 technicians, with more warning they may have to leave.

Other businesses are desperate for workers to fill thousands of vacant jobs in everything from hospitality, medicine and aged care to horticulture and veterinary services. More than 3000 construction vacancies are being advertised, with two-thirds of companies reporting that no one in New Zealand has applied.

Those who help migrants to gain residency tell of families split apart for years, while employers fret about their staff members’ welfare and worry about losing them.

At last week’s protest at Parliament of migrant workers separated from their families,Daniel Bredenkand, who has not seen his family in 19 months,told politicians, “Two days ago, my wife asked me to please stand in the door frame so my daughter can remember how tall I am because she’s just completely forgotten…The only thing she sees is me on a cellphone screen.” Nurses told of the agony of not being able to hugand comfort little children distressed by their absence.

The hurdles created by the Covid-19 border closure have been exacerbated by opaque and knee-jerk Government policies, critics say. In May, Labour’s once-in-a-generation immigration reset announcement clearly signalled a move away from reliance on low-skilled workers towards attracting the higher skilled.

It signposted greater oversight for employers, who must be registered, with temporary workers plugging only genuine job shortages. The skilled-migrant category would also be reviewed. New border exemptions would see 200 high-value investors allowed to travel here in the next year if they wanted to invest.

Responding to Listener queries, Immigration Minister Kris Faafoisays, “Some industries have relied on lower-skilled labour and suppressed wages rather than investing capital in productivity-enhancing plant and machinery or employing and upskilling New Zealanders into work.”

The Government intended to use the “opportunity” of the border closure to enable a change to the skill mix.

But in July, visas for lower-paid migrants were extended for another 12 months and the promised Accredited Employer Work Visa, replacing six previous visas, was pushed out to mid-2022.

Expressions of interest for the skilled-migrant visa category remain suspended, while the backlog of residency applications, at more than 30,000, is the longest in our history. In July, the Government also canned 50,000 visa applications, forcing those in the queue to reapply, because Immigration New Zealand said it could not issue visas to those unlikely to meet the current entry restrictions.

An anti-immigrant nation?

The system is in stasis, says immigration lawyer Nicola Tiffen.

In the tech sector, one firm, Raygun,took to Twitter to complain about raising the salary for an employee to $106,080 to meet the threshold for a skilled worker visa only to find Immigration New Zealand shifted the goalposts to $112,320 while the worker’s application letter sat unopened.

Co-founder John-Daniel Trask has chosen to stay in this country rather than relocate to Silicon Valley, but he’s publicly voicing his anger at the desperate situation of enterprises such as his. “New Zealand has become extremely anti-immigrant,” he tweeted.

NZTech, which represents major tech companies, argues that the Government should “treat critical tech skills with at least the same enthusiasm as they do fruit pickers, actors, sportspeople and other so-called critical workers”.

Although relief is tentatively in sight for the horticulture and vineyard sectors, now that the Government is allowing seasonal workers from Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu to bypass managed isolation, many temporary workers already in the country want to return home and New Zealand Apples & Pears chief executive Alan Pollard estimates the sector needs to bring in 7000-8000 workers before harvests start next year.

In the critical aged-care sector, the border closure has caused “unprecedented” staff shortages, says New Zealand Aged Care Association chief executive Simon Wallace.

International nurses make up about half of the 5000-plus nurses working in care homes. The association wants the Government to ease access to visas and provide dedicated MIQ space for nurses as well as improve “training pathways” within the country.

The civil construction industry warns that the Government must lower the increased minimum pay threshold for skilled migrants if the country is to tackle a mountain of infrastructure work. Many skilled workers in the industry were earning about $80,000, but the new immigration settings suggest a minimum wage above $112,320 is needed for a visa, says Peter Silcock, chief executive of Civil Contractors New Zealand.

No answers

Meanwhile, Tiffen is concerned at the time it’s taking to put concrete policy and instructions in law in place. After the May reset announcement, “they’ve just never moved any further forward in understanding what the system is going to look like”, says Tiffen, who has spent 20 years in the sector, including 10 years in London.

“Every day, I’m getting phone calls from employers saying, ‘If I lose my migrants because I haven’t got my accreditation, I’m sunk. What do I do to get it in place?’ And I say, ‘Well, I’m sorry, I don’t have any answers – the law hasn’t been published yet.’

“It has left people, families and employers in this position where they don’t know if they’re ever going to be able to commit to New Zealand, get residence and stay here.”

For Michael Witbrock, that uncertainty proved to be the last straw. In July, when the Government canned the 50,000 applications that Immigration New Zealand could not process, the University of Auckland professor instructed lawyers to seek a High Court judicial review.

For Witbrock, a specialist in artificial intelligence, this is deeply personal: he has been separated from his Chinese husband since January 2020. The couple married in August 2019 and applied for a visa in November 2019. Despite the marriage, Immigration New Zealand “demanded quite an onerous set of further evidence”.

“This Government is supposed to be kind and treat people equally, but they didn’t believe in our relationship,” Witbrock says.

Although Immigration New Zealand eventually decided the relationship was real, our borders were closed just after Witbrock’s husband was granted a visitor’s visa.

The judicial review, with Faafoi and the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment as first and second respondents, challenges the lapsing of the visa applications and the suspension of the processing of offshore visa applications until February 2022. “The immigration system doesn’t have accountability mechanisms built into it,” Witbrock says. “It’s almost impossible to tell, as an ordinary applicant, what the progress of a case is.”

The case will have clear implications, not only for 50,000 affected applicants, but also for tens of thousands waiting in various queues to hear if they have a future in this country.
These migrants fall into several categories, including the 189,000 on temporary work visas at the end of 2020. To seek permanent residency, they must lodge an expression of interest (EIO). Since the border closure, the numbers on that list have grown exponentially from 461 to more than 11,000. The residency queue itself was mushrooming alarmingly even before Covid and by February stood at 36,897 – slammed by the National Party as the longest in our history.

With the skilled-migrant category also suspended, the system is in stasis, says Tiffen. “Some people are reluctant to put in an EIO because they don’t know how it’s going to change and whether the reset will apply to the existing application.” She adds that unless migrants work for an accredited employer or have a job on the long-term skills shortage list, they can’t progress to residency.

“It’s very stressful, because they don’t know when the Government’s going to open the residency category or when they’re going to see their families, and their employers are anxious as well.”

National’s immigration spokesperson, Erica Stanford, is also concerned about migrants, many highly skilled, separated from their families for months, if not years.

“It’s a humanitarian crisis in our own backyards,” she says. “For the most part, we invited these people to come here. Take teachers, for example, we paid for them to come.

“Here we are apologising for the Dawn Raids – and rightly so – but at the same time we are deliberately keeping these families apart.” She cites a high school maths teacher who hasn’t seen his children for 18 months. “We’re actively keeping these people apart. It’s horrific.”

Faafoi says he is “working through the details of reopening expressions of interest for the skilled-migrant category and will share more on this as soon as practicable”.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says an announcement is due “in short order” on the stalled residency application queue.

Underinvestment

Economist Cameron Bagrie says although border restrictions have made it harder for industries to access people with the right skills, the shortages aren’t solely a result of the pandemic. “We have underinvested in the training and education of our people for a very long time,” says Bagrie. “What shutting the border has done is expose that underinvestment.”

But if the direction of the Government’s May immigration reset is maintained, the stress is only going to get worse. Sectors such as hospitality, aged care and horticulture have become used to low wages, says another independent economist, Shamubeel Eaqub.
“There’s a whole bunch of businesses out there that are addicted to cheap labour,” he says. “Is it going to raise wages? The answer is yes, because there is a labour shortage. And if you want to attract workers, you’ve got to pay them more.”

Others warn that higher wages and attracting higher-skilled workers risk adding to inflationary pressure.

Auckland Business Chamber chief executive Michael Barnett does not accept the view that a tight labour market will drive up wages and improve productivity. “If you are adding skills, you’re growing your sector and growing your competitiveness and innovation,” he says. “You stop doing all those things when you’re in this environment.”

Simply raising wages was not boosting skills, he told the NZ Herald recently. “As an example, in technology, the person on $60,000 who went up to $80,000, then went up to $100,000 knows no more than when they were on $60,000. So you’re not improving productivity, all you are doing is raising the cost of doing business.”

Those costs were passed on to customers and fed into rising inflation, he said. “It’s just not sustainable.”

Stanford says it’s wrong to argue that immigrants drive down wages and productivity.
“Actually, the opposite is true. If these industries, especially horticulture, know the fruit and vegetables are going to be picked, then there’s more confidence to invest in automation and packing houses. And there’s a lot more ability to employ Kiwis in those higher-paid jobs up the chain.”

Not welcome

Meanwhile, the skills shortage is continuing to bite across many sectors. A recent Auckland Business Chamber survey of 1000 firms revealed more than 6700 job vacancies, with 87 per cent of respondents claiming to have skills shortages now or in the immediate future.

“We have this expectation that we’re going to build lots of houses and lots of infrastructure,” says Eaqub. “But can we, when we don’t have the migrant workers and when so many already working in the sector are on work visas?”

Faafoi insistswork is already being done. “As a Government, we have taken steps to address skills shortages, with more than 17,000 skilled workers and their families given border exemptions to date. This has meant more than 6000 healthcare workers and their families; more than 2000 primary-sector workers, in addition to the Recognised Seasonal Employer workers; more than 2000 research and development workers; more than 1000 construction, infrastructure and manufacturing workers and a number of other critical workers have been allowed into New Zealand since June last year.”

But Stanford says migrants are fleeing and the international community has got the message that New Zealand is closed for business. “Basically, we’re giving the middle finger to migrants and saying, ‘Actually, we don’t want you here.’ We’re turning them away. And the ones that are thinking about where they might go, they’re not choosing New Zealand. We’re not even in the top five right now.

“Go to any of the migrant websites and you get 50 immigrants saying, ‘Don’t come. You’re not welcome here.’ That is the message we’re sending to the world.”

What’s more, Stanford says Canada and Australia are actively recruiting people in New Zealand, including hospitality staff. “That’s scary. We don’t have a quarter of what we need right now, and they’re here poaching the staff we do have; they’re poaching truck drivers.”

If labour shortages are bad now, Eaqub is unequivocal that they’re only going to get worse when the border reopens. “If you’ve got 40,000 people a year who are not leaving, then at some point in time, when they’ve got their vaccines and things are looking okay, it will be time for them to do their OE, or whatever else, and that is a risk.”

He points out that the biggest sectors Kiwis in Australia work are in retail, hospitality and construction, rather than mining. “The weekly wages for those industries in Australia are double that in New Zealand. So, the appeal is there. Those industries will be under quite a lot of pressure because they simply won’t have the people.”

Michael Witbrock says there are things Immigration New Zealand could do right now to make the system fairer: communicate more honestly about where people are in the queue, and install a review system.

“There’s so much opportunity for arbitrariness in the current system and so little opportunity for review,” he says.

Meanwhile, he continues his relationship with his husband with the help of 21st-century technology. “Video calls from China are free and easy, which is miraculous and wonderful. But it’s not nearly as good as being with your partner.”

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