Changes to immigration settings to plug skills gaps may be at odds with the Productivity Commission’s advice to shift away from a reliance on short-term and low-skilled labour from overseas

An immigration announcement has the tourism sector celebrating, but migrant advocates are questioning the move to bring in more low-waged workers from overseas while simultaneously closing many of their pathways to residency.

Immigration Minister Michael Wood over the weekend announced sweeping changes to the settings for short-term migrants, with the doubling of the working holiday scheme capacity. The move will see 12,000 extra workers able to enter the country and fill gap sectors like tourism.

Sectors affected by international shortages like meat processing, construction, seafood, seasonal snow and adventure tourism and carers will be given exemptions to median wage requirements and visa extensions in order to keep up capacity.

However, the changes have raised concerns around whether Immigration New Zealand is sticking to its formerly announced goal of the immigration rebalance, which purported to shift the economy away from an over-reliance on short-term, low-waged migrant labour.

The goal was recommended by the Productivity Commission back in May, after a months-long investigation into the relationship between productivity and the country’s current immigration setting.

The commission published a series of 24 recommendations that aimed at moving New Zealand’s immigration policy from reactive and short-term to a longer-term approach.

They highlighted a reliance on low-waged migrant workers as an Achille’s heel for the economy, with the end result of New Zealand having one of the least-productive economies in the OECD.

Immigration adviser Katy Armstrong said the announcement was at odds with earlier announcements, and wondered about the “constant pull-push around not wanting short-term labour whilst increasing the opportunities for just that”.

As working holiday visas don’t have to have any specific skillset, she saw the move as a blunt approach to increasing capacity rather than well-targeted policy.

And with working holiday visas being specifically for people who will work in the country on a temporary basis, it does little to shift New Zealand’s reliance on the short-term.

“Working holiday [visas] come with a prohibition on taking any permanent work – they’re supposed only to do fixed term contracts. The real need in New Zealand is not for fixed-term work,” she said. “By extending working holiday visas further and further, it’s only increasing the chances that employers and employees will fall foul of those rules.”

She wondered why moves weren’t made instead to extend the visas of post-study work visa holders, who will already be building lives in New Zealand and have local qualifications, and pointed out the difference in the countries of origin between these different visas.

“Why would we not re-issue or extend their visas in the way we’re bending over backwards to do for Working Holiday visa-ites?” she asked.

“Oh that’s right. It’s because they were predominantly Chinese or Indian students who dared to come here with a dream, invest lots of money into an international education at our bidding when we didn’t really mean it.”

She said those visa holders could be filling the skills gaps Immigration New Zealand hopes to plug with the working holiday visas, but for the “shade of their passport”.

A positive in the announcement according to Armstrong was the introduction of a two-year pathway to residence for care workers. Armstrong said she was “very happy to see that a pathway to residence is now created, albeit yet again, for those who have already been working in those roles for a good while now, the devil will be in the detail as to whether that time will count”.

Immigration adviser Katy Armstrong said increasing working holiday opportunities is more about lack of capacity than well-targeted policy. Photo: Supplied

Meanwhile, tourism association Tourism Industry Aotearoa was happy about the news, partly because working holiday visa-holders can come and fill labour gaps while also being tourists, buying the products the sector puts out. “This is very positive news for the tourism industry, we need great people joining tourism so we can gear up for the summer season,” CEO Rebecca Ingram said.

“We are hopeful this will help to relieve some of the immediate pressures on employers. And there are added benefits – while not all Working Holiday Visa holders will work in tourism and hospitality, they will all want to enjoy tourism activities and experiences while they are in New Zealand.”

A recent survey from the association found three quarters of tourism operators were looking for workers at the moment, but 59 percent of vacancies were receiving fewer than five applications. Around half of tourism businesses reported they are not confident they can attract and retain he workforce they need.

The tourism sector is unique in a number of ways. Almost a quarter of jobs in the industry come with provided accommodation, while a third offer free meals. These are the kind of fringe benefits most commonly marketed to young people on a sojourn through New Zealand.

The industry body is looking into a plan authored by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment which seeks to increase the sustainability of the tourism sector, both in terms of emissions and workforce.

The Better Work Action Plan, which was released for consultation last week, identified a current and future skills gap as a problem for the tourism industry.

“Tourism struggles to attract and retain people with the skills the industry needs, particularly from the domestic workforce, and does not sufficiently invest in training for both current and future needs,” it reads.

So while MBIE’s draft report pointed out a tourism sector with an over-reliance on migrant labour, the move from Immigration New Zealand looks to solve its labour woes by doubling down on the very same workforce.

Green Party immigration spokesperson Ricardo Menéndez March said it seems like an incoherent approach from the Government.

“On the one hand Labour insists on restricting access to residency visas and removing the working rights of partners of visa holders in an attempt to lift wages,” he said. “At the same time they continue to entrench exploitative guest worker schemes by increasing the number of working holiday visa holders who are able to come in to satisfy businesses’ needs.”

He pointed out these visa holders are not required to work for an accredited employer, have no pathway to residency, and many can only work for the same employer for a matter of months.

Meanwhile, he said removing the need for a median wage requirement for migrants may satisfy the needs of businesses, but it doesn’t do much for the migrants themselves.

“Migrant workers coming in to work for sectors with median wage exemptions will continue having no real pathway to residency,” he said. “A more just approach would be to recognise the contributions of these workers and offer residency pathways.”

He wants to see fair pay agreements, better wages in the public sector, minimum wage increases, income support and opt-out union membership instead.

“Restricting access to residency visas based on wages only entrenches inequities and creates a precarious workforce.”

Wood called labour shortages a persistent global symptom of the pandemic, and said the recent immigration rebalance allowed for flexibility in the system.

It’s a flexibility allowing immigration settings to be wielded as a lever – one that has large impacts on the economy. Hence the focus of the Productivity Commission on who is allowed to come and work in New Zealand.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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