Queenstown’s Mayor says telling migrants to “go home” isn’t the way to solve the problem of workers who are suddenly struggling after years of contributing to this country

Not everybody is on board with calls for our country to send migrants home or use Covid-19 as an opportunity to go “cold turkey” on migration

Migrants like Liz Guevara don’t want to leave either, and believe they can find employment without taking any jobs away from New Zealanders.

“Here in New Zealand we don’t mind to clean bathrooms.”

Laid off from her full-time housekeeping job at a Queenstown hotel, the 25-year-old Peruvian and her compatriot David Mamani, 35, who was working as a chef, are now living for free with a big-hearted family on a rural property south of Christchurch. The friends, like thousands of others, are unable to find work and are in limbo. They’re not here illegally, but their job prospects are grim.

“It’s a really hard time for everyone,” Guevara says. “We just need a little bit of flexibility in our visas in order to find any job.”

The pair, from the Cusco province of Peru, have been in New Zealand for more than two years. Guevara is a high school teacher, Mamani an accountant.

Both took jobs Kiwis weren’t willing to do. Now, with Covid-19 turning off the torrent of international tourists, they and 53 of their former colleagues have been cut by their former employer.

Guevara was living in a Salvation Army-owned house in Queenstown until 10 days ago after her six-person shared house broke up because flatmates lost their jobs or left the country,

“We have a can-do attitude. We were working in another field in our countries. Here in New Zealand we don’t mind to clean bathrooms.”

‘They’ve paid their taxes’

Queenstown’s Mayor Jim Boult said terms like ‘migrant workers’ and ‘temporary migrants’ often didn’t convey how big a part of the community many of these people were.

To the general public terms like ‘temporary migrant worker’ conjured up images of students on working holiday visas or people who had no intention of settling here, Boult said.

Those kinds of transient travellers would leave by themselves once borders opened up – and should be assisted to.

That wasn’t the case with many of the migrants who were ineligible for social welfare benefits and couldn’t change visas to find new employment, he said.

Many had made their lives here, given birth to children and integrated themselves into communities like Queenstown’s.

While Auckland Emergency Management gave food vouchers to 150 foreign nationals during lockdown, Otago CDEM spent over $2m issuing 13,300 food vouchers to 5250 people. 

“The mistake people make when they think of the term ‘migrant workers’ is that these people are here for a short period of time and move on,” Boult said.

“We have folk who have been here on essential skills visas sometimes up to 10 years. They’ve been a hardworking part of our community. They’ve paid their taxes. They’ve helped build the tourism industry to what it was. They’re active in local groups in their communities.”

“It’s not just as simple as saying to them ‘well, you need to go home’.”

Otago Civil Defence Emergency Management (which covers the Queenstown area) isn’t wrapping up its support for migrants despite a nationwide scaling back of these operations. A total of 7103 people have registered for CDEM support through them, and 5592 of those were foreign nationals/migrant workers.

The service has gone further than many other CDEMs and tried to fill the gap between benefits (which migrants can’t access) and traditional forms of CDEM support like food parcels filled with emergency rations like beans.

While Auckland Emergency Management gave food vouchers to 150 foreign nationals during lockdown, Otago CDEM spent over $2 million issuing 13,300 food vouchers to 5250 people. 

Otago CDEM Group Controller Richard Saunders said they had little choice but to provide welfare support through vouchers rather than food parcels.

“It was just based on the volume of people needing food. There wasn’t the infrastructure in Queenstown to run a food parcel system. It would have been overwhelmed very quickly.”

They have gone further in other areas too. While migrants have been turned down for subsidies for their rent in places like Auckland, Otago CDEM has provided $210,000 to migrants struggling to pay rent and other bills. 

“The foreign national group are unable to access the type of welfare support available to New Zealanders through our welfare systems and therefore they were reliant on the Civil Defence function to provide them that welfare.”

‘What happens next?’

Boult said the wider Queenstown community had also raised over $750,000 through a charitable fund called Queenstown Greater Needs.

“Our community is absolutely doing its utmost to look after these people. They are part of our community. We cannot ignore them.”

“So put aside the face that it’s not actually our problem to look after them we are looking after them.”

However, CDEM support wouldn’t last forever. Long-term the Government would need to look at benefits for some and exercising powers to change their visa conditions so they could switch employers, he said.

“When that money runs out my question to Government is: what happens then?”

“Don’t get me wrong I’m a ‘job for Kiwis for first’, but experience has shown us a lot of these people are doing jobs that Kiwis don’t particularly want to do.”

The situation in Queenstown is still dire for many migrants despite the efforts of the community and Otago CDEM to provide support. 

Javed*, a migrant who spent much of lockdown in Queenstown, left the city after alert levels lifted to find a job in another city so that he could have a shot at staying in New Zealand.

“Queenstown is like second home to me. I feel like I belong there…[but] lots of people are looking for jobs. Many have work visa and their jobs are gone.” 

He is travelling north. First to Wellington for a few days and then on to Auckland if he’s not able to find a job in the capital.

If that doesn’t pan out he hopes the Government will allow him to switch careers to something like dairy farming which is currently facing a major shortage of personnel.

“That’s really depressing because for me it took me almost three years to build my career in the kitchen…and right now the hard work of three years is about to go.”

“I used to be a chef, but I’m willing to change my line because for me right now to keep my status legal is more important.”

“I don’t want to go back to India right now because the coronavirus is a really, really big thing in India. More than 150,000 people sick.”

‘If I got a job anywhere I would go for it’

Guevara’s visa, a 12-month one tied to a Queenstown hotel, was due to expire on May 6. The Government has, through a blanket extension, pushed that out to September 25. 

She has to convince another employer to hire her for 12 months and then apply to change employers.

The Government passed legislation to allow it to change visas like Guevara’s in bulk so that they can more easily switch employers, but it has chosen not to do this yet.

She’d like them to, so she can take work where she can find it.

“If I got a job anywhere, I would go for it…If I had to work in a farm, I would go for it.”

Given the uncertainty brought on by Covid-19, Guevara said most employers didn’t want to commit to employing someone for a year.

“They want you to work maybe 20 hours, 25 hours, not the whole five days a week. And they want to offer you a casual contract. But we can’t accept that because of our visa’s restriction. We need to find a sponsor.”

Guevara and Mamani are applying for jobs up and down the country. Mamani applied for a chef’s position in Auckland last week but was told he needed an unrestricted visa to work there.

“If I got a job anywhere, I would go for it.” 

“If I had to work in a farm, I would go for it.”

Guevara’s adamant she and Mamani won’t take jobs off Kiwis. Now, as before, employers have to prove no New Zealanders could do the job being offered.

“We are very respectful of the rules of New Zealand, we are aware of the situation, we know that there is a lot of New Zealanders losing their jobs as well.”

“We just want to work. And we don’t want to have the money from the Government. We want to work and earn our money working. We don’t want the Government to pay for our food, pay for our rent. We know how to survive with a minimum salary.”

Mamani wants to undertake cookery training. Guevara’s wants to register as a teacher and is saving for a master’s degree – something she said would require tens of thousands of dollars. They have savings but they’re loathe to pay $70 for immigration advice because they don’t know if they’ll need that money to buy a flight home.

A one-way trip costs about $2600 right now.

“I’ve been living here more than two years,” Guevara said.

“If I go now, back to my country, I would feel really frustrated … because of my goals and my dreams. I think I’ve been working honestly and hard during this time, and if I go back now it’s like it was for nothing.”

*This migrant requested anonymity

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