Comment & Analysis

Immigration setting reforms go one step too far

20:01 pm on 22 May 2022

By Elly Fleming*

Analysis - The government's latest immigration reforms could have serious flow-on effects for the everyday New Zealander, writes immigration law expert Elly Fleming*.

Photo: 123RF

The immigration reforms, or 'reset', announced by the Prime Minister on 11 May led the news headlines for that day and into the next. We need to keep the spotlight on this topic for longer however - there are considerable consequences to the changes that will be felt by all New Zealanders and not just business owners.

Underlying the current debate is how to create an equitable immigration policy that benefits New Zealand, while at the same time enabling New Zealand to compete for migrant labour with countries like Australia and Canada.

The current practice of constantly tweaking immigration rules is leading to increasingly complicated policy and confusion for migrants and Kiwi employers. In my opinion, these latest rule changes have gone too far and their potential and real negative consequences have been downplayed.

A major policy change that has gone under the radar is a new requirement from 2023 that will see all employers who hire migrants on any temporary visa needing to be accredited, including those employing working holiday makers and students. This development is contrary to all previous messaging from Immigration NZ and the government to employers.

It is a clear signal to Kiwi employers that even with a fully open border, it won't be business as usual when it comes to hiring migrants.

In fact, it will be much more onerous. Some employers will be ruled out for accreditation and others will be dissuaded from applying, at a time when we need to minimise bureaucracy and allow employers to achieve exactly they are being asked to do - survive, thrive and keep our economy alive.

The changes will be top of mind for employers already struggling with staff shortages. They will be thinking about it now and into the 2023 general election year. Employers who have never had to deal with Immigration NZ will be forced to decide whether it's worthwhile for them to obtain accreditation and be subject to additional scrutiny and interference from the government.

We know that sectors such as agriculture, construction, seafood, meat processing, aged care and nursing, tourism and hospitality rely heavily on migrant workers. This reliance is unlikely to significantly change, even with higher wages on offer for New Zealanders.

The experience of many employers is that New Zealanders don't want the work on offer. And despite what the Government might have you believe, it's not just a matter of wages. Night shifts, being away from home (eg, at sea) and the physical toll of labour-based jobs are considerable downsides.

Let's also consider the partners of temporary work visa holders. They will have to navigate different rules from their partners, from December 2022. Partners of Accredited Employer Work Visa (AEWV) holders whose occupations are not on the newly introduced Green List, or who are not earning at least twice the median wage in other roles, will not be entitled to open work rights. They will need to qualify for an AEWV or their own alternative temporary work visa.

The new rules for partners are yet another signal to employers that there will be a smaller pool of migrants on open work visas in the market for employers to rely on to fill labour shortages. It certainly feels like employers are being backed into a corner.

Partners of New Zealanders will continue to have access to open work rights, essentially being treated more favourably than partners of temporary work visa holders. The clear disparity in treatment is not going unnoticed.

The new rules for international students will also see a smaller pool of migrants on open work visas in the market. Migrants come to New Zealand not just to gain knowledge but to settle and integrate into our communities. Opportunities to do this will now be limited for many students. We will be a less-desirable destination to study, and their declining numbers will affect businesses accustomed to hiring migrants on Post Study Work Visas or Student Visas.

The changes do not end there - the government has now commenced sector agreement consultations, among other things proposing to the seafood sector to introduce caps on the number of migrant workers employed in the country at one time. A clear pattern is emerging here.

The pandemic has clearly demonstrated how critical the flow of migrants is not only to New Zealand's economy and trade, but to our overall wellbeing or fabric as a community. During lockdowns, it was migrants who often carried out the essential roles in our supermarkets, in our hospitals, and in our aged care facilities.

It is important that as a nation we ask ourselves what kind of immigration policy we want. Do we want a policy that enables migrants to come and live in New Zealand and build their families? Or will we accept a divisive policy that makes it difficult for businesses to hire migrants and potentially creates a migrant underclass?

We need to remember that a raft of government announcements that might be tempting to brush off as being about 'business' or 'people overseas' could actually have serious flow-on effects for the everyday New Zealander.

* Elly Fleming is an Associate with Pitt & Moore in Nelson, working exclusively in immigration law.