Significant changes to immigration rules around work visas have recently been announced by Immigration New Zealand and the New Zealand Government.

These changes have supposedly been set up to “preserve and prioritise future job opportunities for New Zealanders” but in actual fact, they are very short-sighted – to the detriment of New Zealand’s industries, migrants, businesses and economic success.

An initial extension to any employer-assisted work visas

First comes an extension of the visas of onshore Essential Skills workers for an additional 6 months. This means that if you are in New Zealand, and you hold an employer-assisted temporary work visa due to expire before 31 December 2020, it will be extended for 6 months.

According to Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway, this extension will provide “immediate relief and certainty for migrants and employers in the short term while they recover from the impact of Covid-19.”

And I agree. This 6-month work visa extension looks great on the surface, offering a degree of short-term security and stability which I applaud.

However, in keeping with a Labour Government that is being known to give with one hand and take with the other – when you peel back the veneer of this “softer” visa extension, the Government has set into place a system that is going to make it increasingly difficult for migrants to get work visas and will see a lot of people being unfairly and unnecessarily forced out of New Zealand.

What other changes have been introduced?

At the same time as announcing the extension, INZ announced that the duration of new lower-Essential Skills work visas will be reduced from 12 months to 6 months.

Not only that, but INZ will be abandoning ANZSCO and the skill level of work will be based on purely a remuneration threshold. From July 27, anyone who is paid below the median wage $25.50 per hour, is determined to be working in a low-skilled environment. (Compare this to the previous assessment technique of ANZSCO skill level 4/5 and the pay rate being below $21.68).

Additionally, an employer will be required to have a Skills Match Report (SMR) where they’re looking wanting a renewal or new lower-Essential Skills work visas.

So if you were mid-skilled (ANZSCO skill level 1-3 and paid $21.68 or more, but less than $25.50) and eligible for a three-year visa under current rules, from 27 July you will be assessed as being in low skilled work if paid below $25.50 and only able to get a 6-month work visas for the next 18 months, provided the labour market test is met.

The negative impact of shortened lower-Essential Skills work visas on business

For businesses, the change to a 6-month visa will be frustrating, time-consuming and expensive because it’s going to lock them in a continuous round of recruitment processes and engaging with the Ministry of Social Development.

The change is tied to the introduction of new work visa system – intended to force many employers to abandon any migrant-filled low-skilled positions (low-skilled as immigration defines it, not low skilled as the employer defines it), and force employers to give up supporting work visa applications on the basis that it is just too difficult.

Overall, I think it underpins a government that has a firm belief that migrants are taking jobs, which is a complete fallacy.

This reasoning simply doesn’t acknowledge that it’s not about replaceable labour units, it’s about readily transferable skill. Nor does it acknowledge that increased numbers of unemployed does not correspond to increased numbers with the skills and qualifications employers need.

The truth is, people become pigeonholed into their particular careers, including New Zealanders! It’s not possible to simply change careers. What employers today are looking for is a particular area of knowledge and a particular set of skills and experience. That’s not necessarily going to be readily available just because we’ve had an increase in unemployment.

It also assumes that if I’m a Pilot that’s been made redundant with Air NZ that I’m going to take a job in Countdown. I don’t think that’s true.

I think that higher-skilled people are more likely to wait for better job opportunities in their field unless financial desperation requires them to take jobs out of their field. Or unless they see that there is no realistic prospect of an increase in job opportunities in their field.

The government should be compelling Kiwis to take lower-skilled roles

What is also quite frustrating is that the Labour Market Testing (and SMR) required now is just about the availability of New Zealanders, not whether New Zealander’s actually take up the work.

And that comes back to an inequity – the Government is requiring employers to advertise jobs and prefer New Zealanders to take the jobs and hold those positions. But the Government is also not compelling anyone to take those jobs and hold those positions!

There is no threat to a person’s Unemployment Benefit if they don’t take a job that they could readily do – so it seems one-sided to me, personally. The Government wants to have it all its own way.

They’ll deny you the ability to get a work visa for a valued employee but won’t compel a New Zealander to actually take the job. It’s entirely their choice – so if the unemployed New Zealander chooses to sit on the unemployment benefit rather than take a “lower-skilled” role, and go and work in your business, that’s their right and choice.

That just seems wrong. If you’re going to make New Zealanders preferred candidates for jobs there should be a level of compulsion put on them to take that work, if they are readily able to do the work.

The double-sided impact on INZ

Reducing the lower-Essential Skills work visa duration to 6 months is not only a challenging step for migrants, it’s a retrograde step for INZ and an Immigration Department that cannot cope with its existing workload – because they’re going to end up with a flood of people who are going to file (probably in reality) every 3 months.

However, it’s also very good for the Government in another way. Think about all the revenue that has been lost from visa application fees from Border Closures – that is going to be made up very quickly by people having to make repeated and continuous rounds of applications at $495 per application.

The impact of this uncertainty on migrants and Kiwis

For those migrants who are planning to work their way towards residence, they are going to run into significant trouble.

They’re going to be put through the stress of 6-monthly work visas, applications having to be made every 3 months in order to get through in time, and they’re going to need to be in a position to withstand labour market testing, which could be increasingly difficult.

Ultimately, these new changes are going to add to the confusion. Add to the workflow. Add to costs. Add to the burden of work visa holders. And add to the burden of employers and businesses as well.

My advice to migrants
If you’ve been preparing your visa, you’ve gone through a labour market test, and the position has been advertised, and that outcome has been positive for you, I think there is a serious consideration to be had to moving forward with your application, depending on when your current visa expires.

You may want to delay your application – but you’ve got to be careful because if the advertising becomes older than 3 months Immigration New Zealand will require you to do that all over again.

And if you do have to do that all over again in the future, what happens if Labour Market Testing shows there are New Zealand people available, with unemployment levels still rising? It means you won’t be successful.