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Migrants risked lives, deserve hero’s welcome

The pandemic has exposed holes in the country’s immigration support systems, with a lack of compassion. If Jacinda Ardern wants to make good on her promise of kindness, Laura Walters suggests she starts with those who risked their lives for the country they love.

OPINION: Across the cover of July’s British Vogue are the words: The New Front Line. Train driver Narguis Horsford, midwife Rachel Millar, supermarket assistant Anisa Omar stare out from the page - proud, determined, familiar.

Like heroes before them, the key workers bat away that description. “You’re putting yourself at risk by being at work, but it’s worth it because you’re helping people,” Omar says.

The UK’s almost-forgotten Blitz mentality and wartime rhetoric seems to have been adopted by everyone, from Vogue to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The UK is far from alone in its attempt to identify the common enemy, inspire teamwork, and encourage tolerance for sacrifice.

We’ve seen the same style of language and sombre addresses coming from New Zealand, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern calling on the “team of five million” to unite against Covid-19, and to fight the virus by “going hard and going early”.

Along the way, Ardern has praised the work of those on the frontlines. “Thank you for playing your part, you're saving lives,” she said.

They are healthcare workers, caregivers, supermarket assistants, drivers - the people who risked their lives on the battlefield of Covid.

Like their British counterparts, New Zealand’s heroes deny the title; they did what they could for the country they love. But for some essential workers, the country they love isn’t truly theirs.

Many of those who kept New Zealand going throughout lockdown are migrant workers. They were fighting for the future of someone else’s country, in the hope they will one day call New Zealand their own.

But many of those in low-skilled jobs have no legitimate path to residency.

If these people had been sent to fight in a foreign land they would have been welcomed home with open arms.

Instead, their future remains unclear.

The pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of migrant workers in New Zealand. Gaps in the system have been exposed as gaping holes.

Story after story show a lack of support and planning.

Migrant workers who lost their jobs have been at the mercy of the state. From a family of seven expected to survive lockdown on a couple of cans of baked beans and small ziplock bags of rice and flour, to other out-of-work migrants working for lentils and chapati flour.

Tens of thousands of stranded migrant workers had to fight tooth and nail to be able to access any social assistance.

This has led to calls for compassion and more support for migrant workers without an income, and rightfully so. However, those who have retained their jobs, while risking their lives, have largely remained quiet. Until now.

During the first week of the lockdown, a workers’ rights campaigner in the migrant community said it didn’t seem right that migrant workers would risk their lives to keep the country moving, without coming any closer to a legitimate path to residency.

But the campaigner didn’t think those early, uncertain days of the pandemic were the right time to raise the issue. That’s no longer the case.

A petition calling on the Government to recognise essential workers - even those in low-skilled jobs - has gained more than 1000 signatures.

Meanwhile, migrant workers are using social media chat groups to call on their communities to vote out Labour, come September: “I am not saying National would do anything different but at least we won’t die wondering what could have been,” one person said.

And last month, immigration law specialist Alastair McClymont published an open letter to the Prime Minister, on behalf of the migrant community.

The letter highlights what he calls “the ultimate irony”: so many migrant workers kept the country going during lockdown, and are now being told to leave.

“Prime Minister, I think now you understand that we are essential to New Zealand,” the letter says.

“We will risk our lives for the country that we have fallen in love with. For the country where our children go to school. For the country where we have settled, and placed our roots. We provide the essential work for this country not just in a crisis, but every single day that we go to work.

“We do it because as Covid-19 has shown; we are all human beings, we live and work together, and we are all part of this community.”

Migrant workers say they have played their part, and proven “we are one”, and are now calling on the Prime Minister to do the same.

Those who have spoken up about this issue say they just want a fair go. They want the legitimate path to residency that was promised to them when they signed up to work in New Zealand.

The least we can do, as a country that prides itself in being fair and community minded, is follow through with what we’ve promised them.

There are broader issues with the Government’s lack of clear and cohesive immigration policy. And offering these essential workers a home in the country they risked their lives for, will not solve these problems.

As economist Shamubeel Eaqub puts it: “We have no strategy...we’re just kind of doing stuff.”

Despite its lack of strategy, this Government’s one constant promise has been to stamp out exploitation. But what happens when that exploitation is happening at the hands of the Government?

Earlier this year, Newsroom Pro editor Bernard Hickey labelled New Zealand’s policy of tempting guest workers here with the chance of permanent residency and then quietly withdrawing that chance, as a “damaging and politically convenient economic addiction that is mean, abusive and fraudulent”.

If the Government wants to show it means what it says about ending exploitation, and focusing on kindness and compassion, it should start with these essential workers.

If Ardern really cares about everyone in her team of five million, she’ll offer a hero's welcome to those who risked their lives for the country they love.

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