Immigration, border changes: Adviser warns new settings too narrow, New Zealand will continue to miss out

An immigration adviser says a major Government policy announcement to attract highly-skilled workers is too narrow and “not the fix we need”, warning the country will continue to miss out to the likes of Australia.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Wednesday announced the full border reopening had shifted from October to July 31, along with a raft of immigration changes, including pathways to residency for highly skilled workers in global demand.

That included a “Green List” of more than 85 hard-to-fill roles to attract and retain skilled workers to fill skill shortages who could arrive on a work visa from July 4.

This involved a streamlined and prioritised pathway to residency incentivising skilled healthcare, engineers, trade and tech-sector workers to relocate to New Zealand long-term.

The Green List involved 56 jobs that could go straight to residency applications from September, and 29 jobs where people could apply for residency after two years.

All migrants paid at least twice the median wage ($115,480) could also apply for residency after two years.

Malcolm Pacific Immigration chief executive David Cooper said the announcement only gave certainty to a “very small group”, and meant New Zealand could continue missing to countries with wider settings, such as Australia.

He, along with the wider sector, had been anticipating a wider announcement on pathways to residency for the wider Skilled Migrant Category, such as a points-based system, which the Government had been working on since 2019.

He suspected this would be pushed out until after July 31, when the “one-off” residency applications for migrants affected by the pandemic closed.

In the meantime, Cooper said he suspected New Zealand would continue to miss out on migrant workers in careers that still did not offer certainty around residency.

“Why are they singling out a small group? Why not plumbers and teachers? We need builders and chefs, are they not highly-skilled too?

“Today’s announcement is not the fix we need.”

The new settings also included long-signalled changes to the international education sector, also fully reopening by July 31 but with measures to stop it being used as a “backdoor route to residency”.

Ardern said the changes would help address immediate skill shortages and speed up the economic recovery from Covid-19.

The July timeframe also brings it in line with travellers under the Accredited Employer Work Visa, from July 4, while allowing time for Immigration NZ to prepare to process the visas, with resources already stretched and potentially impacting the processing of one-off residency applications.

Changes to immigration settings included a simplified immigration process, and visa extensions for around 20,000 migrants already in New Zealand to ensure skilled workers remained in the country.

Changes will mean those wishing to hire migrants for most roles will need to pay them the median wage (currently $27.76 an hour).

This was part of what Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi said was a shift from pre-pandemic trends that relied on lower-skilled workers and resulted in the increased exploitation of migrants.

Faafoi said that for some sectors it would take time to transition away from a “reliance on cheap migrant labour”.

The tourism and hospitality industries in particular have been hit hard by the pandemic, he said, and for them a lower wage threshold of $25 per hour will be required until April 2023.

However the changes have also raised questions about the ability to process visas, with Immigration NZ already straining under the demands of the 2021 residency applications.

Faafoi said 230 new staff had been brought on board and the new online system would streamline the process, with current processing times shrinking.

However, he admitted the new settings and border reopening – and associated visas – meant the one-off Resident 2021 Visa applications, for migrants impacted by the pandemic, would be delayed.

Originally the aim was to process 80 per cent of the expected 110,000 applications within 12 months – by March 2023 – but that would now be pushed out another six months.

Cooper said resourcing issues should have been sorted out well before this week’s announcement.

National Party immigration spokeswoman Erica Stanford this raised questions about resourcing at Immigration NZ and doubted the timeframes given for processing.

“Back in 2017 a visitor visa took just 21 days to process, that number is now five months.

“The Labour Government promised that 80 per cent of the 110,000 resident 2021 visa applications received would be processed within 12 months. Six months have passed, and INZ is only processing these at half the speed required to meet that target.”

This was despite INZ hiring another 500 staff and spending another $150 million since 2017, she said.

Stanford said the changes to immigration settings, including a pathway to residency for certain “high-skilled” workers, were simply a rehash of Labour’s 2017 policies, and ignored the post-pandemic reality.

Criticism has also come in from support partner the Green Party, which says residency priority for those on high-wages would create a “two-tier immigration system”.

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