INZ Is Back At Work – Sort Of

May 14, 2020
Iain MacLeod

The Immigration Department has confirmed that from Thursday 14 May, in respect of their onshore offices (only) they were back to work with around 70% of the staff in the office. Offshore offices remain closed.

The reason given for 30% of its onshore staff not being present at work in NZ today is because they may have children and or an “underlying health condition”. Give me strength.

Given schools are back on Monday, they will lose the ‘childcare’ excuse. It’s funny that my staff that have children have been working right through the lockdown from home, balancing home schooling, relationships with partners, not being able to get out (or away) and dealing with the mental and physical pressures that has come with it. Along with feeding the cat. Interesting isn’t it how differently the private sector with the discipline and constraints of competition acting upon it, reacts in times of crisis, from those whose jobs are guaranteed by Government and funded by my taxes.

I, and a few others, continue to call for an audit of this department or at least a public inquiry. The Department was in chaos before the virus landed on these shores and it has become an unmitigated disaster since. I am expecting shortly to be told they are suspending all EOI selections under the smokescreen of the virus. The chaos, to be fair, has not been all of their own making. The Minister of Immigration has been missing in action for over two years and there has been no residence program in place since December 2019 when no one had even heard of this virus.

The Department has publicly said that they are back to processing residence applications with the same priorities that existed before the lockdown.

Those of you who have a skilled migrant category application sitting in the queue, priority will continue to be given to those who have claimed points for high salary ($51 plus per hour for the majority) and/or those who have claimed points for a job in New Zealand in an occupation that requires statutory registration.

And in a sign of things to come, the Immigration Department ‘communications’ people, sent out an update Wednesday this week, in effect firing a shot across the bow of the immigration advice industry. They have helpfully, just in case we haven’t been reading the news, reminded us that unemployment in New Zealand is increasing by several thousand people a week (and that is with a wage subsidy in place).

That means greater scrutiny is going to be placed on Essential Skills Work Visas in particular. It has always been the case that those applying for an Essential Skills Work Visa, have that job tested against the local labour market. That is to say if the Department believes that a local “should” be available to fill that position the Work Visa should be declined. It doesn’t matter if no New Zealander applied, or if those that apply don’t possess the skills/attitude/work history the employer requires, only that the immigration officer might conclude a New Zealander ‘should’ be able to do the job.

No doubt the acid will also go on employers to demonstrate they ‘should’ not be able to train someone to take up the role as well.

These are not new criteria, they have always underpinned and informed decisions on work visas. Since skilled unemployment dropped effectively to zero a few years ago and the country was advertising thousands more jobs than we had bodies to fill them, most immigration officers were not, at least in the case of our clients, routinely questioning whether there were locals available because demonstrably there was not. The labour market was that tight pretty much across the board so the labour market test was often applied ‘lightly’.

With unemployment peaking around 9% by the end of next month, before, Treasury heroically predicts, trending down to 4.2% in 24 months and with an election just around the corner, the scrutiny paid to the employer’s ‘genuine efforts to recruit’ is clearly going to increase.

My fear, and it is shared by those industry colleagues I’ve been in close contact with during the lockdown, is that in typical fashion we can expect the bureaucrats will take this signalling to the extreme. Many of us believe the default position will be to decline the Work Visa unless there’s compelling evidence not to. Let’s just say, we understand the culture and we know how they think.

This might even extend to people sitting in that skilled migrant residence queue waiting for Government to tell INZ how many resident visas it can approve this year and whose work visas might expire before a decision can be made. INZ, if they wanted to, could decline applications for ‘extensions’ to work visas on the grounds the incumbent ‘should have trained up a New Zealander’, the skilled migrant would then lose their job and the resident visa application must be declined given without that job they no longer score sufficient points. I should point out that today, the rules allow for a 12 month ‘extension’ to a work visa if someone is sitting in that queue. Whether that proves long enough remains to be seen.

There is no labour market test on a skilled migrant residency application. That is to say the government does not care whether you are “taking a job” from a New Zealander or not. They will still give you residency.

The problem for skilled migrants now is time. In a perfect world those of you that are organised (like our clients) could secure a job, be selected from the skilled migrant pool within days, invited to apply 24 hours later, file a resident Visa application within 24 to 48 hours of that and if the application is low risk, the Department could (should!) process and approve the residency within a few days. Therefore within maybe three weeks of getting a job offer residency could/should be granted. No work visa would even be required.

Alas owing to the incompetence of the department and ever shifting political priorities (or as we have seen over the past 6 months, political silence), this has never happened. So virtually all SMC resident visa seekers have required work visas which apply different and tougher criteria.

Work Visa policy then has always undermined the government’s own skilled migrant residency objectives. No government has ever addressed that conflict. There are obvious simple solutions but that is for another blog.

What is quite clear is that these work visas are now going to become harder to get until we see unemployment back to the levels of recent years.

New Zealand continues to have critical skill shortages and will do coming out of lockdown and in the months that follow. We can now increase funding for educating our own (as announced this week in the budget) but can’t instantly ‘magic up’ Civil Engineers, Quantity Surveyors, Draughtsmen, technicians, tradesmen/artisans, teachers or IT professionals among others locally, so it is incumbent on the department to exercise the power we’ve just been reminded they have, carefully, and to take into account the bigger picture. I am not holding my breath on that score.

How they treat Work Visa applications over the next few months given they pretty much do whatever they want anyway, will have a direct impact on how this economy bounces back from the recession it is now in.

If they go too hard on work visas, they will destroy the skilled migrant category. And all New Zealand will suffer and stay in recession longer.

The government loves to remind us that we are “all in this together” and we are a ‘team of five million’. I do hope the government doesn’t forget that migrants that we will desperately need in months to come, thousands of who are already here, invested in our joint future, are also part of that team of five million and should not be blocked by a ‘one size fits all’ default decline position in respect of work visas which I have a horrible feeling is exactly what is about to happen.

I hope they prove me wrong.

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