The immigration minister hopes his plan for a new migrant visa system will better fill genuine labour gaps, especially in the regions, and relieve the “enormous pressure” on Auckland’s infrastructure.

The proposed changes to the migrant work visa system are also expected to cut down on migrant exploitation by toughening employer checks. The Government is also reviewing the previous Government’s move to force lower-skilled temporary workers to leave the country after three years in a job to stand down for a year, before applying again for another three years. It will also review the National Government’s move to force partners and children of lower-skilled visa holders to apply for visas in their own right.

The planned changes to the employer-assisted temporary work system are significant, and would further cut the number of migrants coming into New Zealand, though the minister will not disclose what drop in migration is expected.

When asked, a spokesman for Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said: “number reduction isn’t the point of this – getting workers where they’re needed is the aim – but if asked the minister would say it will maintain or accelerate the current downward trend”.

Labour went into the election promising to put in place measures that would significantly slow migration, with the party saying its immigration policy would result in a drop of 20,000 to 30,000 migrants.

At the same time, now-coalition partner New Zealand First proposed a drop in annual net migration from about 70,000 to just 10,000.

Infrastructure in main centres, particularly Auckland, has struggled to keep up with the influx of migrants in recent years, with Lees-Galloway saying the system had been failing the regions and industries with acute needs for labour, while loading enormous pressure on Auckland.

The minister has maintained the 30,000 figure was not a target, and instead would be a by-product of better matching of migrants to areas with skills shortages, and cracking down on shoddy employers and education providers.

Since the coalition government took power there has been a slight downturn in annual net migration figures, but nowhere near the drop expected, and mostly because of New Zealand citizens leaving for Australia or not returning from Australia.

In the year to July 2018, annual net migration was 63,800, down from the record high of 72,400 the previous year.

But the impact of the changes proposed by the Government, including changes to post-study work rights, which came into effect in November, and now the proposed changes to employer-assisted temporary work system, would not have yet been realised.

Employer-assisted temporary work visas are those where an employer can demonstrate, through labour market tests, there are no suitable New Zealanders available to do the work, so the position is filled by a migrant with suitable skills and experience.

About 20 percent (47,000) of the 230,000 temporary work visas issued in the past financial year were employer-assisted. The rest were issued for things like working holiday makers, family members of New Zealanders and recent migrants.

Ahead of the election, Labour said changes to this part of the migration scheme was expected to cut annual net migration by 8000.

The new system, which will be out for consultation until March, proposed a handful of key changes to a system Lees-Galloway describes as “overly complex”, and one that did not adequately respond to sectoral or regional differences in the labour market.

Essentially, the one-size-fits-all approach was not doing the job.

Focus on the regions

The Government has proposed replacing the essential skills in demand lists with regional skills shortage Llsts “to better reflect the skill shortages that exist in the regions and provide a stronger signal to temporary migrants of opportunities in regional areas”.

A regional skills shortage list has long been signaled by the coalition Government, with the skills list developed for the Christchurch rebuild pointed to as an example of a more targeted approach to filling skills gaps.

This new way of targeting skills shortages in particular areas, comes off the back of the Government’s proposal earlier in the year to include a KiwiBuild skills shortage list in order to plug the 30,000-person gap in New Zealand’s construction sector, as the country gears up to build thousands of houses, as well as other key infrastructure.

The KiwiBuild skill shortage list – set to replace an earlier plan for a KiwiBuild visa – is not included in the proposed new scheme released on Tuesday. However, the construction sector would be able to hire migrant workers by meeting one of four labour market tests.

Lees-Galloway said the proposed changes represented a significant shift in how New Zealand operated its Immigration system “in the best interests of the New Zealand economy and our regions”.

Cracking down on exploitation

Lees-Galloway said there were too few checks and balances on employers hiring migrants, resulting in some employers with poor track records still being able to access migrant labour.

There has been a significant crack down on migrant exploitation during the past couple of years, with the coalition adding to work the former national Government started in cracking down on dodgy education providers and employers.

On Monday, Immigration New Zealand and police said they had arrested and charged a 64-year-old Samoan national, who is a New Zealand resident, with human trafficking.

The man has allegedly been regularly bringing Samoans to New Zealand to work illegally for him in the horticultural industry. Victims say he took their passports, didn’t pay them for completed work, and subjected them to physical assault and threats.

It is believed that his alleged offending has been ongoing since the 1990s, across the Hawke’s Bay region.

This type of slavery is rare in New Zealand, with only a handful of prosecutions brought, and only one successful conviction of human trafficking.

However, stamping out employers who engaged with any type of exploitative practice has been a priority for the Government.

The proposed scheme would introduce a new framework for all employer-assisted temporary work visas, which would be employer-led, rather than migrant-led.

“The new employer checks will help combat migrant exploitation by lifting the requirements on all employers and enabling the Government to put tougher tests in place for higher risk employers and employers looking to hire multiple migrants,” Lees-Galloway said.

In order for employers to be able to fill a place with a migrant worker, they would need to pass one of three types of employer checks to become accredited, which lasted for 12 months.

Then there was an option of four types of jobs checks, or labour market tests, including replacing the essential skills in demand test with a regional skills shortage list.

If there was found to be a skills gap, migrants would then undergo identity, character, health, and compatibility or skills tests.

The Ministry for Business, Employment and Innovation said the changes would provide more certainty for employers who meet the required standards, make for faster processing for employers hiring subsequent migrants, and support better compliance and assurance processes.

The new framework would initially require more upfront investment for most employers, however, this was expected to be balanced with longer-term ease and certainty, MBIE said.

The aim was to simplify the system by reducing the number of application pathways.

Addressing long-term issues

The scheme would include introducing industry sector agreements to ensure long-term structural issues were addressed.

These agreements would focus on sectors employing a lot of migrants.

The aim was to prevent sectors or industries from becoming reliant on migrant labour, at the risk of shutting out Kiwis.

There would also be a focus on improving alignment of the immigration, welfare, and education systems to improve how they worked together to increase the employment of New Zealanders.

Sector agreements would help businesses in need easily source migrants, in return for a commitment to employ and train more New Zealanders, and to address their workforce needs more effectively.

“Ensuring that enough training opportunities are available to put young people on the pathway to skilled employment will be essential for addressing our long-term workforce shortages,” Lees-Galloway said.

There would also be more incentives and support for businesses to employ more New Zealanders, while improving employment conditions and certainty for both domestic and migrant workers.

The proposed changes would impact six temporary work visa categories: the Essential Skills including the Essential Skills in Demand Lists (ESID), Approval-in-Principle, Talent (Accredited Employer), Work to Residence – Long-term Skill Shortage List occupation, Silver Fern (Practical Experience), and the Silver Fern (Job Search).

The final decision on changes to the system were expected by mid-2019.

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