Students from India sit on steps on the edge of Aotea Square. Labour's migration changes would stop students at sub-degree courses from working. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

Labour’s migration policy is trying to land somewhere in the middle between New Zealand First’s plan to slash migration by 85 percent and the Government’s tweaks to the status quo. Bernard Hickey reports on the plan and the surprisingly relaxed reaction from business.

Labour Leader Andrew Little has finally announced his plans to reduce net migration by between 20,000 to 30,000 a year if Labour wins the election on September 23 and the detail shows it has tried to find a ‘Goldilocks’ policy: not too hot and not too cold.

It may just have worked, given the benign initial response from the likes of Business New Zealand, Federated Farmers and the Auckland Chamber of Commerce.

The plan largely avoids slashing migration in a way that would hurt the highest value parts of the economy and alienating core Labour supporters who worry a sharp turn into New Zealand First territory would see their party tarred with the same brush as New Zealand First. Little was keen at his announcement to portray the plan as all about reducing pressure on infrastructure and housing, rather than being about race and ethnicity.

Most of the cuts fall on the international student sector, which has been ramped up in the last four years with the help of promises to work during and after study in a way that essentially gifted pathways to residence to private training establishments (PTEs) to boost export revenues.

There are few votes to be lost by focusing the pain on a sector that has been accused of bringing in students with the promise of 20 hours work a week and a chance of becoming a permanent resident, rather than delivering degree level courses that students use when they return home. Several of the PTEs have been shut down in the last year because of concerns over fraud, and migrant advocacy groups say the sector has made it easier for local employers to pay students less than the minimum wage and abuse workers.

Labour would remove that pathway to residence for students if it was in Government, mostly by limiting the work visas available to international students doing sub-degree level courses at PTEs, both while studying and in the year after studying. Labour said these changes would reduce net migration by between 15,000 to 22,000, which would make up most of the 20,000 to 30,000 reduction in net migration. It estimated this would reduce education export revenues by $70 million a year out of the $4.5 billion a year currently earned by schools, universities, polytechnics and PTEs.

A Labour Government would stop issuing student visas to courses below a bachelor’s degree that were not independently assessed by the Tertiary Education Commission (TEC) and the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA) to be of high quality. It said international students studying at below bachelor’s course level would only be able to be work if the work was approved as part of the course.

It would also limit the ability of students to receive a one year work visa after their study was finished. Only students graduating with a Bachelor’s degree or higher would be able to get such a visa.

Separately, Labour would strengthen the work test for work visas so they were not be used for jobs New Zealanders could do. It would also regionalise the skills shortages list so workers coming in on the visas could only live and work in areas with a skills shortage. It would remove the skilled migrant category bonus points awarded for studying and working in New Zealand and standardise the age points to 30 for everyone under 45.

It estimated the removal of student visas for non-approved courses and stopping sub-degree level students from working while studying here would reduce net migration by 6,000 to 10,000, while removing the ability of sub-degree level graduates to work for a year after graduating would reduce migration by 9000 to 12,000. This would mean more than two thirds of the cuts would land on the international education sector. Labour would not cut the Registered Seasonal Employer, working holiday or Pacific migrant quotas, which keeps its supporters in Pacific communities happy and reduces the potential pain for the agricultural sectors.

The changes to work visa skills testing would reduce migration by 5000 to 8,000. There were 44,000 work visas issued last year. Labour would also introduce a KiwiBuild Visa to hire skilled tradespeople, which would be over and above the 7000 or so skilled construction tradespeople migrating each year. Up to 1,500 Kiwibuild visas would be available to employers paying a living wage and taking on an apprentice for each overseas worker they hired.

Little said he did not expect the migration changes would reduce economic growth, as unemployed New Zealanders would take up the vacant roles and productivity would improve.

“This will ease the pressures on New Zealand, and on Auckland in particular,” Little said.

“Without these changes, 10,000 more houses would be needed each year and up to 20,000 more cars would be on our roads,” he said.

“National’s policies have created a backdoor to residency via low-level study and low skill work. These have had the perverse effect that a 23 year old with a New Zealand diploma and three years experience in retail can get more points towards residency than a 45 year old oncologist who wants to migrate here.”

The reaction

Prime Minister Bill English said Labour’s changes would shut down the export education sector and hurt economic growth.

“A 30,000 reduction in migration right now would stall the economy. It will deprive businesses of the skills they need to make the investments they want to make to grow New Zealand,” he said.

English also argued that targeting students would not ease the pressure on Auckland housing and transport.

“If the main target is students, they don’t actually buy houses and not a whole lot of them have cars and most of them go back to the country they came from when they have finished their studies. So it is not going to have the impact they claim,” English said.

However, business groups were more positive, and appeared relieved that the planned cuts on work visas were not bigger.

Business New Zealand welcomed the move to encourage higher skilled migration into the regions and to create the new Kiwibuild Visa. CEO Kirk Hope described the policy on international students as a “logical approach,” but warned it could affect export earnings.

Federated Farmers said it was heartened by Labour’s policy, which will focus more on reducing student numbers in Auckland than reducing numbers of dairy workers from the Philipines in Southland.

“We support the regionalisation of skills shortage lists and would work with Labour to ensure provision for key dairy farm positions where there are demonstrated shortages,” Federated Farmers’ Dairy Spokesman Chris Lewis said.

The Auckland Chamber of Commerce’s Michael Barnett also welcomed Labour’s regionalised skills shortage list, which he had called for previously. He also described the removal of loopholes and backdoors for residency for students and their families as a plus.

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