Work Visa Changes For NZ

February 18, 2022
Iain MacLeod

It is really interesting that my predictions of New Zealand moving to a more micromanaged numbers game appears to be at the core of the proposed changes to work visa policy and process. This does not represent a closing of the doors. In fact it may mean that it will become easier for a few, the same for many and impossible for some.

Government proposes one catch all ‘job specific’ work visa and three sub categories within that, each with their own criteria. Work Visas will fall into a category depending on whether that occupation appears on a ‘green,’ ‘red’ or ‘restricted’ list of occupations. 

Green list — this list would be relatively short but will see uncapped visa numbers, remains job and employer specific, has no minimum salary (but one presumes will still need to meet ‘market’ rates and be qualified as per ANZSCO). The occupations likely to appear on this list are Doctors, Teachers, Nurses, Engineers, ’some’ IT workers, heavy Diesel Mechanics, Vets and ‘some construction trades’. 

Red List would be everything else except the ‘restricted’ occupations and to secure a work visa an applicant will need to meet one of the following criteria: 

1.       Be offered at least the median salary* (around $27 per hour) or higher; OR 

2.       Provide evidence that the employer should not be able to fill the vacancy locally i.e. a labour market test; OR 

3.       Be part of a Sector agreement** 

*The median salary requirement will really shut out only those at the lower end of the skills spectrum. 

There are also changes coming for partners of work visa holders – the ‘open’ work visas for partners would go under this set of proposals, meaning partners will have to find their own job and meet the same criteria listed here. 

**It isn’t clear how these Sector agreements will work but it has been suggested that this will apply to a ‘limited’ number of industry sectors including but not limited to Dairy/Farming, Construction (‘key trades’), Aged Care, Deep Sea Fishing Crew, meat processing (halal slaughtermen I imagine). This will take account of ‘work force planning’. I read this to mean that the Government has agreed with the loudest sector groups to cap numbers of specific occupations each year within their sectors in exchange for a more streamlined visa process. 

I presume the numbers will be agreed in advance each year with each sector group. How many ‘key trades’ for example for construction will be allowed in I cannot say but the ‘direction of travel’ with the government investing big in trade training for example may well be a sinking lid. Presumably… until they realise that it doesn’t work. I note Australia is considering moving away from annual occupational quotas.

Restricted List – this is where it gets interesting. Government intends to ‘restrict’ access to work visas for a number of troublesome occupations that are borderline skilled and which probably occupy more INZ time than many other occupations. My information suggests this will include, but not be limited to, Retail Supervisors and (potentially) Managers, Chefs, Cooks, Cafe (and fast food)? Managers and many ‘hospitality’ workers. 

What is not clear is if these occupations are ‘out’ and it will not be possible to get a work visa OR if to get one an applicant will be required to earn the median wage of $27 per hour. It is reasonable to assume anyone earning at or over the minimum, whatever it is, will still be eligible for work visas in the ‘restricted’ occupations. 

Historically many applicants from India and China, enticed by the Immigration Department, education providers, education agents and some immigration advisers filled these ‘restricted’ roles having completed university degrees through holding post study work visas (sold by the unscrupulous as a pathway to residence which for many was a blatant lie given entry level jobs post their study would never be skilled enough to secure residence). This change signals to me that ‘export education’ is not going to be the same. It isn’t going to be the big export earner it was and the Government wants to make clear that if you are going to come and study, come and study something we need if you want to stay long term — teaching, nursing, engineering and IT – advice we at IMMagine have been giving for years.

On the one hand this is not good for the 35,000 New Zealanders who worked in the sector prior to the borders closing and the universities and private education providers who rely on the income from international students. Equally, I have been a vocal critic of the lies and misleading marketing of the sector and the Government (including INZ) on promising a pathway to residence that was an illusion for many. If we have fewer lives ruined and a better match of in demand jobs to subjects studied, that in my view is a positive outcome for all concerned.

From the perspective of our clients at IMMagine, who tend to be more educated and skilled and therefore higher earning than most skilled migrants, I don’t think there is too much to fear.

I remain concerned that the Productivity Commission (tasked last year with coming up with some immigration policy for the government) has recommended that job specific work visa numbers match the number of places available under the skilled migrant residence programme. Government has not rejected this advice. If they adopt it, it would be a mistake in my view as it assumes all those who wish to work in NZ, are transferred/seconded, will want to apply for residence. Many will not. 

I have a feeling that the quiet hope is Holiday Working Visas (generally the under 31 year olds but currently for some up to 35 years of age) holders will fill many of the ‘restricted’ occupations and to ‘empty bed pans, plough the fields, pick the fruit, wait tables and cook food’ because they do not get job or sector specific visas. It wouldn’t be great for employers because they will have a constant churn of staff given holiday work visa holders time in roles by law are limited, often to three months, before they are expected to move on. 

Not de-coupling work visas from specific employers, especially if they are going to restrict numbers as it seems, is a huge mistake. It invites exploitation and mistreatment as visa holders will be even less mobile than they are today and forced to remain with unscrupulous employers. 

Given record low unemployment, employers screaming for staff and for the borders to reopen (we now have a timeline as I wrote last week), the overarching message here by Government to those employers is ‘try harder’ at training and up skilling New Zealanders. 

A laudable goal that few New Zealanders could possibly disagree with. Until you are an employer and you advertise and advertise and advertise and you find you have no one applying who has the attitude or even the rudimentary skills to invest in. I wonder what incentives government might put in place for the nation’s young people or those in industries that are going to shrink to (re)train? My bet is nothing. 

I said to the Opposition Spokeswoman for Immigration a few days ago Government assumes that migrants, temporary or permanent, have few options. We think our pretty landscapes and laid back lifestyle can’t be found elsewhere. Wrong. When there is global demand for the higher skilled and many now have multiple countries to choose from (with borders that have been open and not shut for the thick end of another year as in NZ), why, if we are going to make it harder to come and settle in New Zealand through job specific visa pathways would anyone but the very desperate waste their time on New Zealand? 

I am not about open borders and it is clear we should only be letting in the numbers we can absorb. That requires planning – dare I say it a population and corresponding bi-partisan plan that NZ has never had and seems never wants to contemplate. 

New Zealand does not have an immigration ‘problem’, it has an infrastructure problem. We simply don’t build enough houses, roads are increasingly clogged in Auckland because we don’t invest enough in public and private transport, we don’t build enough hospitals to cope with a rising or ageing population and it’s the same with schools. Infrastructure is always in catch up mode.

Our government (and past governments) do not plan. Easier to blame migrants for everything. 

This proposed policy is further proof that migrants are seen as economic units and what is best for us as a country and a failure to appreciate it is a two way street – we need skills and many migrants have choices about where they take them. The harder we make it, the fewer will come. 

Until next week 

Iain MacLeod

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