Talking Points

No country for low-skilled migrants?

Migrants Lives Matter protest in Aotea Square, Auckland

New Zealand temporary migrants and residency applicants aren’t the only critics of the Government’s imminent immigration overhaul. Some businesses – like this 100-year-old glazing company, and this Wellington restaurateur – say the skills shortage has already reached a ‘crisis point’, with the ‘short-sighted’ immigration reset likely making it even worse for the construction industry and SME owners.

Two weeks ago, Economic Development Minister Stuart Nash confirmed the Government’s intention to shift away from low-wage, low-skilled migrant labour, while targeting higher-skilled workers and wealthy investors. Though further details are yet to be revealed, that statement alone set the scene for what’s likely to be the Government’s next move: narrowing pathways to temporary and residency visas even further.

Much to migrants’ disappointment, Nash said nothing about the longer-than-ever wait times that prospective residents are currently enduring, with applications taking about two years to be processed.

Visa processing times as of 1 June 2021. Source: Immigration NZ.

Here’s how the Government’s plan is shaping up, while we wait for a more formal announcement.

Wealthy investors wanted

You might have heard stories of New Zealand becoming a safe haven for multi-millionaires and billionaires wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of modern life.

For years, notable one-percenters have been buying land in Aotearoa, quietly building mansions with underground bunkers. Case in point, Vice’s 2019 documentary below.

That was 2019, and it feels like a lifetime ago. Back then I couldn’t help but wonder: “Do they know something we don’t?” Okay, two years on, we all got the same memo: the world is a hot mess. And what better place to flee to than quiet, bucolic New Zealand, especially if you can buy yourself a lifetime entry pass?

The Government is keen to back this vision with action. And that’s starting… now. A new border exception allows wealthy foreign investors, linked to two Government programmes, to visit New Zealand. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) expects 220 wealthy individuals will arrive over the next year, ideally bringing hundreds of millions in direct investment, skills, and job creation.

It wouldn’t even have been an issue, if thousands of split migrant families hadn’t been waiting to be reunited, with no end in sight. That’s when the focus on the one-percent of wealth owners, coupled with the not-so-subtle downplaying of lower-skilled migrants, becomes problematic. That’s when migrants start to feel more like numbers rather than lives.

Disconcerting news for lower-skilled migrants

Details are scarce, but we know that the Skilled Migrant Category will be reviewed, and the direction the reset may take is already pretty clear.

“Businesses have been able to rely on lower-skilled labour and suppress wages rather than investing capital in productivity-enhancing plant and machinery, or employing and upskilling New Zealanders into work,” Nash said, adding that temporary visas should be reserved for genuine skill shortages.

It’s an interesting take, especially the part about “genuine skill shortages“.

As of today, according to Stats NZ, New Zealand’s unemployment rate sits at 4.7 per cent. It’s 0.5 per cent higher than what it was before Covid-19, in January 2020. And it has been consistently shrinking since its peak in July 2020 (5.3 per cent).

What that tells us is that, despite the pandemic and still in the midst of it, jobs are on the rise again. What it also tells us is that, if we virtually removed all temporary migrants from low-skilled jobs, there would likely be “genuine skill shortages” in many, many industries (if not most). And that’s exactly what could happen. After all, temporary visa workers remain here to fill those gaps as long as there’s a clear, fair pathway to residency on the horizon: otherwise, what would make the investment of time and money worthwhile?

Nick Reid from glazing company Auckland Glass explained that job advertisements across social media, recruitment websites and recruitment agencies, posted for a month, would only attract five applicants – compared to at least 20 people only two years ago.

Sure, the way to go for the future is to train and upskill local workers. But without a magic wand, this transition cannot happen overnight. And until then, we still need people building, farming, cooking, and making the best coffee you’ve ever had.