Migrant workers during a pandemic

Immigration lawyer Aaron Martin explains how the Government has the power to make life more certain for migrants on a work visa

People may currently be unable to leave the country due to restricted airline services, other countries preventing arrivals, and a deteriorating position internationally. What does this mean for those who are here on temporary visas?

There is an option that the Government can utilise.

In cases of emergency such as the current Coronavirus outbreak, the Prime Minister, with agreement of the Minister of Health, can issue an epidemic management notice under the Epidemic Preparedness Act.

This would have the effect of modifying the provisions of various laws to permit the Government to deal with the practical effects of an outbreak, which in the case of immigration means the movement of people.

It would grant an extension of all existing visas until the management notice is cancelled, or until 3 months after the expiration of the notice.

An epidemic management notice affecting the Immigration Act has never been issued before. If a notice is issued, some novel questions will arise:

  • What happens to people on interim visas who need to change jobs? Interim visas have visitor conditions. Do these people get stuck on the visa type approved for the original job, subject to those conditions, without an ability to work in a new role?
  • What happens to those on a student visa who change from one course to another?

Questions around what happens at the end of the visa will also need to be resolved:

  •  Will employers supporting work visas be expected to have advertised roles during the epidemic management notice period?
  •  Will employers be required to show their businesses are sustainable if they are receiving wage subsidies?

One of the important effects of the issue of such a management notice is the potential to provide extensions of temporary visas to migrants. That extension would only apply to  those who have a current visa, and would expire within 14 days once the management notice ends.

Under an epidemic management notice visas don’t need to be issued, granted, or endorsed, so there is no need to apply for the visa.

The notice won’t, however, make people who are unlawfully in New Zealand lawful. Those in detention on warrants of commitment will remain there.

The management notice also gives special powers to judges to consider issues relating to warrants of commitment without needing to bring people into court. This protects Ministry of Corrections and Justice personnel by minimising person-to-person contact.

Issuing an epidemic management notice will mean that both migrant workers and students can find some certainty and maintain their jobs or study, and employers and tertiary providers can keep their workers and students.   

Those who have work visas can carry on working; students can carry on studying; visitors can remain on.

It will be a very new experience for migrants, Immigration New Zealand, and the country as a whole.

Compassion on the part of the government machinery and the public will be needed for those who are here without family support, especially if they become ill. Remember also that many of these migrants will be watching news reports of the ravages of the disease in their home country without any ability to provide help, hoping that when the pandemic ends their family back home have survived.

Understanding will also be required from the migrant communities who won’t be able to get visas processed for family members applying to come here or will have to wait while Immigration New Zealand gears its internal processes to manage the impact of the issue of such a notice.

 It is very easy for the milk of human kindness to dry up when immigration becomes the subject of irrational debate. It will be important to remember: the greatest cruelty you can visit on another is indifference.

Aaron Martin is the Principal Immigration Lawyer at New Zealand Immigration Law

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