In an election year fraught with scandal, controversy and conjecture, immigration has moved to the forefront of every political debate, and for good reason. As a nation, New Zealand has a reputation around the world as an idyllic location for tourists, as well as the destination of choice for international students and skilled migrants. In recent years, the number of people coming to New Zealand, for a variety of purposes, has risen steadily. Though this has had multiple positive effects, including boosting the economy, bringing important skills to the New Zealand workforce and giving industries such as tourism and education a shot in the arm, there have also been some negatives – pressures on infrastructure and roads, house prices being driven up, employment issues and an impact on the public health system.

Much in the news of late is the significant changes being introduced to the Skilled Migrant Category for residence, as well as the Essential Skills category of temporary entry work visas. However, I find all the negative publicity around these changes, a bit disturbing. Could the negativity be because of fear of the unknown and lack of knowledge about what exactly is going to happen? 

To understand the potential impact and reasoning behind the changes to key immigration policy, it is first essential to learn what exactly the changes entail. Through my own decade and a half of experience in the industry, I have seen immigration go through much change and development. However, the past year has been perhaps the most interesting. Firstly, the government has made significant changes to the Skilled Migrant Category for residence, beginning in October 2016 and culminating in a complete overhaul of the points system to be implemented on 28 August 2017. For those who are unfamiliar with the changes, here they are:

  • SMC applicants must now meet one of two income thresholds for their employment in New Zealand. This rounds up to $48,859 for skilled occupations, and $73,299 for unskilled but highly paid occupations. These minimum income thresholds ensure skilled migrant workers are earning remuneration that is commensurate with their qualifications and experience, and only those who earn appropriate remuneration are eligible to apply for residence. 

Though this is expectedly upsetting a lot of people and rendering some of them ineligible for applying under this category, on the other hand it is opening up gates for so many high earning and high value skilled occupations that earlier did not have enough points for SMC due to factors such as no recognised qualification. To put things in perspective, a fresh graduate with a diploma in business could start working at a dairy as a manager outside Auckland at $40K, and be eligible for residence whereas a business development manager at $80K with some years of work experience but no formal qualification could not. Clearly the system needed to swing in the right direction, and a change was necessary. 

  • Bonus points for identified future growth areas and areas of absolute skills shortage will no longer be offered. This change seems to no longer reward skilled migrants for filling important skill needs and shortages, and seems quite problematic. How industries such as ICT, healthcare and construction, for example, get affected by this, only time will tell as we all know that these industries desperately need an injection of skilled workers to take up the jobs available, and removing the bonus points for job offer, experience or qualifications in these specific, recognised fields may subtract from the quality of skilled labour coming into New Zealand.
  • Extra points will now be able to be claimed for applicants aged 30 to 39. In my opinion, this is a positive change. In my wide experience, people in this demographic group are often at their best in terms of their career trajectory. They often have significantly more work and life experience than their younger counterparts. This makes them perhaps the most valuable group of skilled migrants. 
  • Removal of points for close family in New Zealand is also on the cards for the SMC following the implementation of the changes at the end of August. For those applying for residence, their potential for successful settlement into New Zealand is significantly increased and improved if they have a member of their immediate family resident in New Zealand. Therefore, I do not believe that the removal of this category of points was a warranted change.
  • Lastly, there will be changes to points for work experience and some specific post graduate qualifications, as well as an increase in the number of countries considered to have labour markets comparable to New Zealand. However, exact details of these changes and how they will affect the point’s calculator are yet to be released by INZ. We will need to wait and see what the impact would be.

It is expected that further details around these changes will be announced before or on Aug 28 2017. 

In addition to the SMC changes, there are also a number of changes coming into effect on 28 August, to the Essential Skills work visa category. These include:

  • Three bands of remuneration will be introduced under the Essential Skills category. This means that any migrant earning below $41,538 a year will be considered lower skilled and will be subject to the stand down periods explained below. Any migrant earning between $41,538 and $73,299 a year in an occupation classified as ANZSCO Level 1–3 will be considered mid-skilled, and those earning over $73,299 a year will automatically be considered higher-skilled, regardless of their occupation.

 Those whose occupation is considered low skilled are able to apply for a maximum of three one-year work visas, and once they have completed three years of said visas, a stand down period of 12 months will be imposed. For these 12 months the applicant will be unable to apply for another Essential Skills work visa. In addition to this, those who fall into this low skilled category will be unable to support partners’ or dependent children’s’ applications. Their partners and children will have to apply for and be eligible for visas in their own right. 

I believe that this will cause a lot of turmoil and tension initially and through the transitional period. This, though unfortunate, is ultimately unavoidable. However, I also believe that the government’s long-term vision here may in fact be spot on. Essential Skills work visas are supposed to be temporary in nature especially when there may be no pathways to residence due to low skill levels. 

 The purpose of the visa category is to bring in migrant workers to fill vacancies that cannot be filled locally. Those who hold these visas are here to work, gain important work experience, and then return to their home country to utilise the work experience gained. According to the government, they are focused on driving home the point that ‘temporary means temporary’. Those coming to New Zealand for a maximum of three years on this type of visa perhaps should not in fact be uprooting their families to come over with them, only to return to their home country a short time later, and face a struggle to readjust. 

However, those who will get affected by this change may find this unfair. I agree and only wish there was an interim solution for those already here. But for any government to affect change, there is an unavoidable and inevitable period of upheaval that cannot be overlooked.

  • Those who fall into the mid skilled and high skilled categories under Essential Skills will not face any restrictions on supporting partners/dependent children, nor will they incur the stand down period after three years. The rules for these types of applicants will remain largely unchanged.

The purpose and direction of these policy changes is clear – bring in migrants to fill important skill shortages, and only offer a potential pathway to residence to those who are likely to have positive outcomes and settlement. However, though the intention may be positive, and may in fact change the face of immigration in New Zealand in a positive way in the next five years, the way in which these changes were brought in was problematic, to say the least. First, the government makes an ambiguous announcement in April, stating in broad and uncertain terms that SMC and Essential Skills would undergo significant change, which would be implemented in mid-August. A clarification was promised in June, which never really came about. The roll out date was decided for mid August and then pushed out to the end of August. Even today, with just two weeks to go before the roll out of the new policy, wherein the SMC Expressions of Interest are to reopen on 28 August 2017, there is still no sign of the points calculator. 

We as practitioners of immigration law are at a loss as to what to tell our clients when they ask if they are eligible for residence. All we can say to them as that we know as much as they do at this point, and can only give them a clear answer once INZ releases the points calculator. This is a complete flip-flop on the part of the government, and has left a bad taste in the mouth for the majority of industry stakeholders with regards to the changes, taking away from what these changes are actually bringing to the country.