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Accredited Employer Visa Set For Changes 'Urgently' - Minister

Immigration Minister Erica Stanford at a select committee. (File photo) Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

Immigration Minister Erica Stanford plans to bring proposals for immediate changes to the Accredited Employer Work Visa (AEWV) to Cabinet in the next couple of weeks.

She says the more immediate changes would aim to balance getting more highly skilled workers into New Zealand against the need to support them with adequate infrastructure.

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Critics including the Green Party want the government to prioritise delinking the visa from specific employers, but Stanford says while a broader rework of the scheme will consider that the government has not made decisions on it.

A Public Service Commission review of the AEWV scheme on Tuesday found it had led to migrants being able to buy jobs, but would be exploited when they arrived.

Some workers were not getting paid, and ineligible employers were being granted accreditation.

The scheme brought in by the previous Labour government in 2022 after Covid-19 border closures led to a worker shortage had aimed to curb migrant exploitation, but Labour leader Chris Hipkins admitted on Morning Report on Wednesday its implementation meant it "actually had the reverse effect".

The review was only set up after a whistleblower came forward with allegations that Immigration NZ was failing to carry out the proper checks.

Stanford said she had made her expectations clear to the agency it should listen to its frontline workers.

"It is not good enough that those people were not listened to, and I've made my expectations very clear of Immigration New Zealand that they are to listen to those frontline staff," Stanford said.

"When things go wrong, the first people that know are the people on the frontline and they have to be listened to."

She had sought assurances the agency was taking the recommendations seriously, and would be receiving regular updates, she said.

She put some of the blame for the scheme's failings on Labour's approach.

"I think what we had was a perfect storm of a brand new visa, with the borders opening, with a brand new IT system and a whole lot of new staff ... if I were the Immigration Minister at the time, would I have done that in the middle of the opening of the borders? Possibly not."

Changes to the scheme would be rolled out in stages, she said.

"With immigration settings there are some things you can do immediately, there are some things you have to wait a little while to do because they require policy changes and they require IT changes, and then some very long-term things you can do like a government policy statement.

"What we will be doing urgently are the things we can put in place immediately, and then we will be doing a longer term review of the AEWV settings to look at, actually, is the visa fit for purpose.

"I'll be taking a paper to Cabinet in the next couple of weeks to make sure that we are getting the balance right between the highly skilled workers that we need and making sure that we're able to have the absorptive capacity in New Zealand to make sure that we can actually have the infrastructure and the housing, healthcare and education services we need to make sure that we can look after everybody."

The news of a policy rework will be heartening for commentators disappointed the review itself had not included policy in its scope.

However, the Green Party has been pushing for an immediate change of decoupling the AEWV visas from single employers.

Its Immigration spokesperson Ricardo Menéndez March said it "could make the biggest impact on migrant exploitation".

"Workers' whole ability to stay in the country depends on a single employer - that increases the risk of exploitation and the government could end it tomorrow."

Stanford said there were no plans to change it at this point but the larger re-examination of the visa would consider it.

"Look, I've made no decisions about decoupling visas at this stage, but it is something that we will look at in the mix of things when we look at the AEWV settings in coming months," she said.

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