Comment

Let’s have a conversation about migration

The Government has finalised an overhaul of the temporary migrant work visa scheme. But the policy is far from what the coalition parties promised voters. So what’s the Government’s endgame?

There are many changes in the newly announced temporary migrant work visa process which are arguably positive, including a focus on the regions and further steps to stamp out migrant worker exploitation.

But it’s not what the Government promised, and the ultimate goal can at times be confusing. Especially for those waiting months on end for visas, who suspect the system is deliberately clogged to keep them out.

The temporary migrant work visa scheme currently affects more than 25,000 employers, and about 55,000 workers.

The changes, announced on Tuesday after nine months of consultation and system design, are billed as targeting genuine skills shortages, focusing on the regions, reducing exploitation, and addressing workforce planning.

The process has been streamlined to replace six categories with a single temporary work visa.

The onus will be on the employer to prove they are trustworthy and will pay a decent wage. After passing that test, they will be able to more readily employ foreign workers, especially if they are outside the five big cities.

Other major shifts include doing away with the existing skills bands in favour of remuneration thresholds, which will be aligned with the median wage.

As soon as the embargo lifted on the Immigration Minister’s announcement on Tuesday, positive press releases flooded in from industry associations whose employers rely on imported labour, including Federated Farmers, Horticulture NZ, Business NZ and New Zealand Aged Care Association.

They see it as a win for employers who will be able to employ overseas workers with greater ease, after passing the initial tests.

The problem is, this policy wasn’t what coalition partners Labour and New Zealand First campaigned on.

It's a significant softening of pre-election policies, to the point where it is widely seen as pro-migration, and even has National's tick of approval (though immigration spokesman Stuart Smith believes the devil will be in the detail).

“As I think I’ve said to you many times before, numbers are not the focus for us, it’s getting the immigration system working well to make sure we’re filling skills shortages, we’re getting the right person in the right place in the right job, and that we have confidence that the immigration system is supporting more sustainable, more productive and inclusive economy where wages are rising and people’s conditions at work are improving.”

Ahead of the 2017 election, Labour’s policy promises were supposed to cut annual net migration by 30,000. And New Zealand First committed to a massive reduction to an annual net migration figure of 10,000.

That softened to broad focus areas in the coalition agreement, with the parties agreeing to address genuine skills shortages and exploitation.

Since then, Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern have gone to pains to distance themselves from their pre-election policy platform, which many labelled as scapegoating migrant communities – especially when it came to infrastructure and housing issues.

Lees-Galloway has talked extensively about focusing on the policy goals, and not numbers.

On Tuesday, he told Newsroom: “As I think I’ve said to you many times before, numbers are not the focus for us, it’s getting the immigration system working well to make sure we’re filling skills shortages, we’re getting the right person in the right place in the right job, and that we have confidence that the immigration system is supporting more sustainable, more productive and inclusive economy where wages are rising and people’s conditions at work are improving.”

When pushed, Lees-Galloway said he anticipated the changes might have a downward effect on the number of temporary visas issued.

But he says it's difficult to put a number on it given low unemployment and the currently strong economy. And no modelling of the impacts has been carried out.

It seems the Government has taken on board the criticisms about its pre-election rhetoric, and the results may well be positive. The policy makes sense given New Zealand First’s obsession with the regions, and the Prime Minister’s focus on compassion.

Where are the forecasts?

But the removal from the policies the two parties were in-part elected on, is stark, and needs to be discussed as a country. This needs to be supported by robust population data and projections.

The lack of a national conversation thus far may well be due to concerns about it descending into one with xenophobic undertones, or differences of opinion between Labour and New Zealand First.

But with New Zealand's ageing workforce, low unemployment and poor productivity, it’s one that can only be avoided for so long.

The discussion needs to start from the basis that migrants don’t cause housing and infrastructure crises, poor planning and policy design do.

As Lees-Galloway said on Tuesday, the Government needs to work hard to make sure the housing, transport, education and health infrastructure is there to support growing populations, in the main centres, and the regions.

But in order to avoid these crises going forward, planning, informed by good data – including good population projections - clear policy direction, and voter buy-in are essential.

And when those conversations happen, they need to include the migrant workers who are affected.

The reaction to Tuesday's announcement is notable in that employers are ecstatic, but those representing migrant workers are wary.

Labour still bonded

Migrant Workers Association spokesperson Anu Kaloti says she and others in the trade union movement have long advocated for visas not to be tied to employers.

She describes this practice as a form of “bonded labour”.

The Government has decided to stick with this model, rather than tying visas to sectors or regions, which Kaloti says would give workers more freedom and power.

There are of course positives, including the opportunity for low-paid migrant workers to now bring their families to New Zealand.

And like many broad policy changes, this one is going to take time to bed-in, and the devil will be in the finer details, so those with a vested interest are paying close attention.

But beyond these specific changes, the wider conversation about migration and long-term population planning will continue to loom.

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