December was when the guillotine was supposed to drop on work visas for accredited employer work visa holders.
Following an announcement from the Minister of Immigration, Michael Wood, today, the change has been deferred until April of next year, while the Government takes time to consider feedback from affected stakeholders.
“We will be looking at some adjustments to the way the proposed … changes will be implemented to reflect some of the feedback received from stakeholders, especially around protections for vulnerable individuals,” Wood said.
“It is important we take the time to consider this feedback and make any necessary adjustments before the changes to the partner work visas can take effect.”
Those vulnerable individuals will include migrant victims of family violence, who advocates say have experienced barriers to accessing help due to their visa status.
Under the previous plan, migrants following their partners to New Zealand would be unable to legally work, which immigration advocates warned could lead to a rise in worker exploitation and domestic violence.
Wood said the changes had been deferred to provide “greater certainty for migrant partners of their ability to work in New Zealand in high skilled roles” and also streamline the process.
This means partners of migrants holding work visas will continue to have those open work rights at least up until April.
Wood said further details would be revealed in February.
It’s a grace period for many migrants, but not a complete removal of the dangling blade of work rights for migrant partners.
Mandeep Singh Bela, president of the Union Network of Migrants and Indian Workers Association, said while the announcement provided interim relief for partner visa holders, he strongly advocated for partners of work visa holders to have the flexibility to work and meet their basic needs.
“With the rising cost of living, it is impracticable for families of migrants to survive on one income. Family reunification should not be subject to skills requirements. In our experience, stringent rules expose migrant partners to exploitation and violence,” he said.
“We request the Minister of Immigration to consider this and let partners of work visa holders to continue to obtain open work visas for the same period.”
Greens immigration spokesperson Ricardo Menéndez March was pleased to hear about the delay, and hoped it would be followed by a full u-turn on the policy.
“The Green Party is clear the Government should fully drop their plans to limit the working rights of partners of migrants as it will do nothing but increase incidences of exploitation and family violence,” he said. “Since the immigration rebalance, we have been raising concerns in Parliament,the media and directly with the Minister on how his proposed changes will harm migrant communities.”
He said removing the work rights would put families in hardship and force the financial dependence of migrants on their partners.
“It’s baffling this policy may still go ahead considering the little support there is for it outside of Cabinet.”
It’s a move that has seen migrant communities gather on the streets in protest, with groups affiliated with the Migrant Rights Network and Unite union gathering on Queen Street back in June to oppose stringent visa conditions.
Menéndez March said while the Greens said it was good to see the Government aiming for one more consultation, they hoped it would lead to what they see as the obvious solution.
“While we welcome the Government’s intent to do more consultation, we hope the minister realises by talking with frontline advocates, survivors and workers on migrant exploitation and family violence that the most meaningful thing he can do is instead to focus on improving the access to the Victims of Family Violence Work Visa.”
The change comes just a week after a number of voices in this area gathered online to discuss immigration policy as it related to family violence.
Dr Charlotte Moore of Kaiwhakahaere New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse said members of ethnic communities and organizations working with ethnic and migrant women have long highlighted specific risks of violence for migrant victims.
“There have also been numerous research reports over many years, identifying barriers and … describing how current immigration policies and practices can contribute to preventing migrant women from seeking or receiving help.”
More recently, a parliamentary select committee highlighted these issues as a part of an inquiry into migrant exploitation.
The committee’s recommendations landed back in August, calling on the Government to closely monitor instances of family violence in migrant families and consider whether immigration settings should be changed to prevent violence.
Other recommendations included making sure migrant partners and families are suitably supported by the immigration system after situations of family violence, and broadening the criteria for the family violence visa.
The committee said it repeatedly heard from submitters that migrants do not report exploitation because they fear deportation or other changes to their visa status and that some migrants may not report family violence because their immigration status is tied to an abusive partner.
This delay will provide some breathing room for migrants and migrant advocates anticipating the change, but it will not be revealed until February whether it’s simply a temporary reprieve.
The controversy is a symptom of wide-reaching changes the current Government has made to immigration settings, which it has called the immigration rebalance.
Wood said before the rebalance, higher numbers of low-wage migrants to New Zealand allowed for higher levels of migrant exploitation.
“A key feature of the rebalance is a focus on building the skills that New Zealand needs, as opposed to the old system which had a focus on large volumes of low-wage labour in some sectors,” he said. “This is a shift but it will be better for the New Zealand economy, and it will reduce the unacceptable levels of migrant exploitation that the old settings facilitated.”
The number of partners of temporary migrant workers coming to New Zealand grew significantly in the years prior to Covid, along with temporary migrant worker numbers.
Wood said while their partners work in a variety of roles across New Zealand, they tend to be concentrated in lower-paying sectors.
“Given the aims of the rebalance, it is important that we ensure the integrity of the system by recruiting for genuine skill shortages for both the primary applicant and their partners,” he said.