Is the government using this Covid-19 related public health scare, and the impending economic crisis, as a political opportunity to advance its long-held views on immigration and the role of temporary migrant workers in NZ’s economy? 

At least last week’s so-called announcement on border relaxation that dominated media headlines on Friday suggests the same. 

Under this new border management plan, it seems that this government has brought forward one of its pet projects of special obsession with high salaried, high skilled, migrant workers. 

Special preference for high-salary, high skilled migrant workers

Notably, amongst coalition partners in government, the Labour Party has been especially keen in its preferences for formulating an immigration policy which only attracts high skilled high salaried migrant workforce. 

The Party had campaigned 2017 elections with a promise to introduce an Exceptional Skills Visa. 

“This visa will enable people with exceptional skills and talents that will enrich New Zealand society — not just its economy — to gain residency here,” the information on the Party’s 2017 election platform reads. 

It seems that with Friday’s announcement, the Party was finally able to bring forward that pre-election promise for an exceptional visa. 

The new category of “other essential workers” as introduced by the government are broadly defined as someone with unique experience and technical or specialist skills that are not obtainable in New Zealand, earning twice the median salary, and employed in major infrastructure projects, or events of national or regional importance or government-approved programme. 

Economic Development Minister Phil Twyford said as part of the Government’s new long-term border management, Immigration NZ is strengthening its processes and criteria for employers who need workers for significant economic activities, to stop key projects being delayed or avoid negative impacts on the wider economy.

“We expect demand to increase as the economy starts up again. We need to balance the demand for specialist and critical workers while supporting a rapidly changing labour market,” Minister Twyford said. 

Seeming love-lost for medium to low skilled migrant workers

On the contrary, the border continues to remain closed for temporary migrant workers who are normally resident in New Zealand, plus the manner in which different Ministries are moving expeditiously for changing the broader settings, suggest that there might be more roadblocks for the temporary migrant workers who are luckily onshore as of now. 

Notably, every New Zealander has endured their fair share of the burden in going through the lockdown and economic disruption, except probably temporary migrant workers who are normally resident in NZ and were, unfortunately, travelling overseas when borders were closed behind them.

They are not only not allowed back into the country to restart their lives, but also bear the brunt of the financial cost of the delay, and government inaction, along with facing an uncertain future. 

In fact, every decision that the government is promising to make for letting some stranded migrants return to the country is painfully slow - and dare we say - bereft of a kind and compassionate view that the situation largely merits. 

Even the decision of allowing overseas partners of NZ citizens and residents to return back into the country, which was apparently made by the cabinet on Monday, June 8, and told to the media by Immigration Minister on Tuesday, could only be crystallised into an official press release on Friday with a tentative implementation timeframe of end of next week. 

The message is clear of not being “hard and early,” in favour of temporary migrant workers, and rather delaying every aspect of decision making, and further implementation on the ground. 

Another point in the case is the fact that despite the government's repeated public posturing about the only reason that was keeping the legitimate NZ visa holders out of borders, was an absence of adequate quarantine facilities - there has not yet been any satisfactory action in the direction of shoring up quarantine facilities. 

There is a broad consensus within many immigration lawyers, industry experts that the government has been incredibly slow in its response so far towards temporary migrant workers. 

Tightening of hiring conditions for migrant workers

On the other hand, the Ministry of Social Development is moving quietly but expeditiously to change the Skills Match Report (SMR) process and the format of some SMRs from Monday, June 15 that is expected to make it tougher for employers to recruit migrant workers. 

Employers will be required to advertise any job vacancy on the new MSD jobs portal to obtain a SMR, and an advertising results report generated by the jobs portal and the email from MSD will be required compulsorily to be provided to INZ with Essential Skills work visa applications. It is largely expected that almost all existing essential skill visa holders will soon have to pass the new muster imposed by the MSD. 

No intention to return back to pre-covid 19 status quo even if for a lip service 

While there is nothing wrong with repositioning new immigration policies to reflect the changed labour market reality, where it is likely that more number of Kiwis will be lining up for several of these jobs that are currently fulfilled by overseas temporary migrants. 

However, what is a bit unempathetic is the fact that the main focus of this new border management plan, it seems, is not to return back to the pre-Covid 19 status quo - at the minimum for those temporary migrant workers who are stranded overseas - and their employers are still able to hold their jobs for them. 

In an ideal world that is not an unfair expectation, given that temporary migrant workers have a life in New Zealand for many years and have been contributing to the economy and society, however, the world has never been ideal for temporary migrant workers. 

It is becoming increasingly apparent that under the new border management plan as announced by Minister Twyford and Minister Lees-Galloway on Friday, the future of medium to low skilled temporary migrant workers is bleak.