New temp work visa scheme focuses on regions

The Government has finalised changes to the employer-assisted work visa scheme. Laura Walters reports.

Nine months after releasing proposals to overhaul the migrant work visa scheme, the Immigration Minister has announced finalised plans, which he hopes will fill genuine skills shortages, better serve the regions, and help stamp out migrant exploitation.

Key changes to the process include introducing a single temporary work visa; doing away with skills bands in favour of remuneration thresholds; and putting the emphasis on initial employer testing in order to avoid exploitation and subsequently make it easier for accredited employers to hire migrant workers.

These changes have been a long-time coming, and a topic of much discussion, with almost 1000 submissions received over the three-month consultation period from December to March.

Ahead of the election, both coalition parties talked a big game on cutting net migration.

At the time, it was believed net migration had peaked at more than 70,000 in 2016 – this has since been revised down to 64,000.

Nevertheless, endless stories about a lack of housing and pressure on infrastructure, particularly in Auckland, coupled with low unemployment rates, have made the topic an obvious focal point. Stories of exploitation of low-paid workers and international students added fuel to the fire.

Before the election Labour said its policy promises were expected to result in a 30,000 drop in net migration, and this specific part of the migration scheme was expected to cut annual net migration by 8000.

At the same time, now-coalition partner New Zealand First proposed a drop in annual net migration to just 10,000.

However, what made it to the coalition agreement was a more general commitment to ensure work visas reflect genuine skills shortages and “take serious action on migrant exploitation”. And since coming into power, the coalition Government has avoided talking migration figures, instead focusing on these broader policy aims.

Like many big issues this Government promised to address with system-wide changes it has taken longer than expected to move through the planning and consultation process.

And in the meantime, the Government has received criticism for not delivering on its immigration promises.

Adding to the complex issue is a high volume of incoming residency applications, and significant increases in visa waiting times.

Overview of visa process changes

On Tuesday, Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway announced the Government’s finalised plan at an aged care facility in Rotorua, to much praise from the aged care sector, as well as from horticulture and agriculture industry bodies.

“The employment and training of New Zealanders, where they are available, will always be the key priority which is why we are introducing more requirements and incentives for employers to employ and train more New Zealanders," Lees-Galloway said.

Specifically, the changes would see the current six categories replaced with a single temporary work visa.

The visa process will be more more streamlined overall, and include an employer check, a job check and a worker check.

The initial onus will rest on employers to show they are reliable, before they can gain accreditation. The accreditation will last for 12 months.

Higher risk employers – those recruiting more workers, and labour hire companies – will have to meet additional tests. From there, labour market tests will be carried out in certain situations.

Other major changes include replacing the existing skills bands with a remuneration threshold, which will be aligned with the median wage.

Initially the remuneration threshold will be set at $25 an hour, or $52,000 a year, based on 40 hours a week.

The duration of the visa granted and other visa conditions will be linked to remuneration, with an easier labour market test and longer visa duration for jobs paying above the median wage, and vice versa.

Spotlight on the regions

There will also be variation on tests depending on location.

Employers in the regions (outside Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin) will not have to undertake labour market tests if they are paying above the median wage.

This means there is no need for skills shortage lists in the regions, with the aim of recruiting higher-skilled foreign workers outside the main centres.

Skills shortage lists will exist for the five cities, and if a job is on that city’s skills shortage list, there will be no labour market test. If the job isn’t on the list, the employer will have to openly advertise the job and the pay rate.

Not a path to residency

In 2017, the Government brought in restrictions for those filling ‘lower-skilled’ jobs, in order to reinforce that the temporary migrant work visa should not be seen as a path to residency.

From August 2017, lower-skilled migrants were unable to bring partners and children with them, unless their family members qualified for a visitor or temporary work visa in their own right.

The Government has decided to reinstate the ability for lower-paid workers to bring their family members to New Zealand, with Lees-Galloway saying it was consistent with the priority to deliver “compassionate government and create an international reputation [it] can be proud of”, adding that it would support a migrant’s right to family life.

However, he did not do away with the 12-month stand-down period for migrant workers paid below minimum wage.

This provision meant lower-skilled workers have to leave New Zealand for a year, after working in the country for three years.

Better planning

The changes also seek to address a disconnect between skills and training courses offered, and the future labour force trends, particularly in regional New Zealand.

Stakeholders will negotiate and introduce sector agreements, in order to ensure more planning for future workforce needs.

This planning dovetails with the recent changes to the vocational education sector, which includes Regional Skills Leadership Groups.

Lees-Galloway said these groups would play a key role in ensuring better planning and use of the local labour market.

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