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Jobs market buoyant as spurt in migration plugs skills gap


Minister of Immigration Michael Wood (INL Image)

Venu Menon
Wellington, June 15, 2023

The government is upbeat over sustained growth in net migration over the past six months.

There has been a net migration gain of 72,300 in the year ending April 2023, as per Stats NZ data.

The data shows that in the year to April there have been 171,800 migrant arrivals to New Zealand, with 99,500 departures.

But Minister of Immigration Michael Wood has sounded a cautiously optimistic note on June 13, saying, “We will continue to closely monitor our immigration flows to ensure we have the right settings, but for now this is a positive sign that we are getting the workers our economy needs to thrive and grow.”

Migrant arrivals in the year ended April 2023 were above the long-term average for April 2002 to 2019, data shows.

Wood said the continued growth in net migration showed the government’s “immigration rebalance is striking the right balance as we tackle labour shortages.”

“The fact that migration arrivals in the year 2023 were above the long-term average continues and a recent OECD report showed New Zealand as the most attractive place for skilled workers is evidence that New Zealand remains an attractive destination for workers to come to,” the minister noted.

A Green List was introduced last year for sectors such as construction, engineering, trade, health and ICT. The Skilled Migrant Category was reopened after a long freeze, which provided pathways to residency for visa holders in those occupations that were on the government’s Green List.

Further, all employers needed to be accredited in order to hire migrant workers, in compliance with the Accredited Employer Work Visa programme introduced in July 2022.

This put the onus on employers to provide basic information about visa holders and also put them through training during working hours.

The compulsion behind those policy changes was to attract high skilled migrants from overseas while also reducing the dependence on low skilled migrant workers.

Employers were also obliged to prioritise local over overseas hiring.

Under the new immigration settings put in place last year, the two-step pathway that existed earlier for hiring highly skilled overseas workers under the Border Exemption and Critical Purpose Visa was scrapped.

The policy changes also allowed parents to enter the country.

To fill the skills shortages, the government tweaked the points system of selection.

The new immigration regime aims to phase out the points system altogether and move closer to achieving the Labour government’s long-term goal of capping immigration at manageable levels.

“Our Green List offers a residency pathway that is appealing for workers in the job that we need the most. We’ve extended the number of jobs on the Green List as well as extending our working holiday scheme to support businesses to get the workers they need,” Wood explained.

Nurses and midwives were placed on the straight-to-residence pathway as part of the policy shift. Until then, nurses had to wait two years for residency.

Wood had argued at the time that the country had witnessed a high influx of nurses and midwives between May and December 2022. He had put that number at about 3,500 nurses during that period.

But that was only part of the story. The fact is, skilled migrants, particularly from the health sector, have been drawn by better prospects in other countries.

The challenge before the government was summed up by Wood. “We have a simple message for any offshore nurses and midwives: come to New Zealand,” he told members of Parliament in December 2022.

Diverting the skills flow away from Australia towards its own shores remains a key priority foe New Zealand.

The Labour government is also driven by the imperative to make up for lost time and opportunity during the two years of Covid-related border closures, when overseas hiring hit a trough.

But incentivising migrant workers to remain in New Zealand has meant ensuring they are not exploited or taken advantage of by employers.

With this in mind, the government introduced the Worker Protection (Migrant and Other Employees) Bill in Parliament on 18 October 2022.

The Bill sought to eradicate temporary migrant worker exploitation in New Zealand by ushering in a “fit for purpose offence and penalty regime” to empower regulators.

The government had committed $50 million to support efforts by Employment NZ and Immigration NZ to curb migrant exploitation.

Once passed, the legislation will amend the Immigration Act, the Employment Relations Act, and the Companies Act to impose fines and penalties to deter employers of temporary migrant workers from flouting both immigration and employment law.

Employers are under legal obligation to produce documents relating to a migrant worker’s employment and wages to ensure compliance with employment terms.

The Bill aims to plug the gaps and loopholes in the current law.

However, the Bill was roundly criticised by the opposition National Party which argued “the majority of employers want to do the right thing but are confused by the complex changes in immigration law in recent years.”

The National Party wanted the government to focus instead on “getting workers into the country, which is what we need to relieve the severe [staff] shortages.”

The spurt in net migration, based on data released by Stats NZ, therefore, is bound to leave the Labour government feeling vindicated.

“Our immigration rebalance has lifted pay requirements for migrant workers to ensure they are treated fairly, and requires advertising for NZ workers before a migrant worker is sought. Today’s strong numbers show that these important protections have not been a barrier to recruiting migrant workers where we need them,” Wood noted.

But the newly-formed Migrant Community Reference Group, announced by Wood in March 2023, aims to give migrant communities across New Zealand a say in shaping future immigration policy.

The panel consists of migrant representatives handpicked by the immigration department to voice the concerns of their respective communities.

Wood has stressed that the “members have diverse backgrounds and deep ties to their communities and come highly recommended from their prior engagements across multiple government agencies.”

The Group meets every three months to carry forward the minister’s “medium-term priorities for the immigration system.” Employers and workers will also sit in at the sessions.

Though the Group’s decisions are not binding, its membership represents a broad cross-section of migrant communities across Aotearoa, including Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese, Singaporean, South African and Pasifika. The Group’s membership is reviewed annually.

The Group functions essentially in an advisory role, all of which points to a cosmetic attempt by the government to placate migrant sentiment in an election year.

But Wood’s June 13 statement sets the government’s longer-term priorities on immigration in true perspective.

“Ultimately, we want to train as many New Zealanders to fill labour shortages as possible, but in the short term it has been necessary to rely more on migrant workers than we otherwise would to plug workforce gaps.”

Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington.

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