The Government is selling it as the ‘smart’ option and the answer to the business communities prayers, but will the new immigration settings ingrain inequities in migrant communities?

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, speaking to a Business NZ lunch in Auckland on Wednesday via video call, said she was having the “very 2022 experience of isolating with her family”, before announcing the final stages of border reopening will be moved up to July.

She followed the announcement up with the similarly very 2022 experience of fielding a question from Max Key, who approached the microphone and asked the Prime Minister if she was worried about intergenerational fairness, what with “the big build-up in government debt from all the borrowing with the Government”.

Ardern batted the question away with a reference to the questioner’s own father, comparing current government debts to those following the Global Financial Crisis, when Key Sr was at the helm.

But while there was a self-congratulatory and optimistic tone underlying the new settings, which see the border fully reopening on July 31 and Government support to shift away from a reliance on low-skilled migrant labour, the spectre of economic dread did seem to hang over some of the reveal.

“There are heavy clouds over the world at the moment,” Ardern said after recounting a visit to the ports of Singapore – a way station for a fifth of New Zealand’s total exports – where shipping containers were stacked high as far as the eye could see.

The immigration settings change was packaged as a salve to one of the larger problems the Government is willing to admit exists around immigration – a heavy reliance on low-skilled migrant labour.

A big part of this is the introduction of a Green List of roles which would allow expedited residency. It’s a move Ardern called both a significant milestone and a chance to put immigration settings on a “more sustainable footing”.

These roles include health workers, tradespeople, engineers, teachers, dairy farm managers and tech sector specialists. The list will be divided into two groups, with 56 roles on a straight-to-residence pathway and 29 roles on a two-year work-to-residence pathway.

Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi – appearing in physical space – called the new settings a “rebalance” and said it would support certain sectors to “transition away from their reliance on lower wage migrants, which Covid-19 has shown is not a sustainable business model”.

But while Ardern said the steps taken today were the smart option – saying “overall we had an opportunity here to get smart about immigration, and we’ve taken it” – questions were raised about the visa processing capacity at Immigration New Zealand, which has seen some visa wait times of over a year despite increases in expenditure and staff in the past few years.

Faafoi said he was “reasonably confident” that the push for extra immigration staff and the automating of many visa processes by bringing them online will stop the office from being overloaded.

It’s a different tack to last month when the Prime Minister gave limited visa processing capacity as the reason why non-visa waiver travellers may have to wait until October to enter.

Furthermore, restricting the residency pathways to specific roles and necessitating double the median wage to be eligible for roles not on the Green List may cut off migrant workers who could fill some of the country’s most important labour shortages.

Greens immigration spokesperson Ricardo Menéndez March pointed out that groups like aged care workers and migrants from countries like India and the Phillipines were less likely to be served by new immigration pathways requiring them to be above wage thresholds.

“The Government is effectively entrenching a two-tier immigration system: one that rewards high-income migrants while keeping low-waged workers on a precarious and temporary status,” he said.

“The Greens are calling for an immigration rebalance that is centred on workers’ rights and the wellbeing of our communities. This announcement fails to provide certainty for the types of job many low-income and essential workers who we congratulated throughout the pandemic.”

Perhaps the true intentions of the announcement are made clear by choice of venue – a meeting of the business leaders of Auckland, rather than in front of migrants and people with family still stuck overseas.

“It’s sending a signal that what they are doing is reducing migrants to economic units to support businesses making profit as opposed to just human beings who are making contributions to our communities and deserve to be treated as such,” Menéndez March said.

Median wage is $27 an hour, meaning that the double median wage requirement of visa pathway for non-Green List roles needs to be an hourly wage of $54, or over $112,000 per year.

There are just over 54,000 migrants in New Zealand on temporary visas who earn less than the wage cap, meaning they are likely to be blocked from the expedited residency pathways.

The countries most represented in this group are India (14,373) and the Phillipines (12,052).

A wage gap that leaves migrants from the Global South more often in lower-earning categories means there is certainly more to be happy about in today’s announcement for migrants from wealthier countries.

“What we know is the large majority of people earning less than 200 percent of median wage are people like from India and the Phillipines and the reality is by setting pathways to residency that are tied to wages, on top of the fact we know there is a wage gap, we are creating a white immigration policy – whether it is intentional or not,” Menéndez March said.

This is of particular relevance for sectors like aged care, which source a large number of migrant workers from countries like the Phillipines.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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