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Ethnic Communities' Mixed Verdict On Immigration Reform

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Ethnic communities in New Zealand have welcomed changes to the Accredited Employer Work Visa scheme but warn that more work still needs to be done.

Immigration Minister Erica Stanford announced the changes on Sunday, including the introduction of an English-language requirement for migrants applying for low-skilled jobs as well as a shorter continuous stay.

The measures sought to safeguard migrants from exploitation and manage net migration more sustainably, the immigration minister said.

However, ethnic communities have expressed mixed feelings about the reform.

The Indian Business Association welcomed the changes, which include the disestablishment of franchisee accreditation, as a positive move, but said not all issues had been resolved.

Jaspreet Kandhari is general secretary of the NZ Indian Business Association.

Jaspreet Kandhari, general secretary of the Indian Business Association, warns that visa processing timelines will be extended. Photo: Supplied

"We are looking at about six months to get a visa for a temporary worker now," said Jaspreet Kandhari, general secretary of the association.

It currently took about six to eight weeks to go through the administrative formalities, Kandhari said, adding that businesses in need of staff would struggle to wait six months for the paperwork to be processed.

Kandhari said the government had yet to address a long-standing demand from businesses to replace a median wage rate with a market rate.

He said a majority of small retail and primary businesses wouldn't be able to afford to pay the median wage for low-skilled roles.

Kandhari said more should be done to protect migrant workers from exploitation.

Adon Kumar, an employment advocate who has been working with the ethnic community for more than a decade, agreed.

"They're virtually stranded," Kumar said. "The only option they have is to work illegally."

Kumar said victims of migrant exploitation had no financial support and the only option was to rely on others for support.



"The penalties for employers of migrant workers who exploit ... I think it's too low," he said.

"Employers of migrant workers are generally smart enough to find loopholes and, therefore, it's unlikely to make a major impact in the positive direction," Kumar said.

Kumar said the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and Immigration New Zealand should react promptly to allegations of exploitation.

Sumesh Maharaj, managing director of FITMED Recruitment International in Wellington, said Immigration New Zealand should investigate visa scams and check accredited employers frequently.

"Immigration New Zealand is not actively verifying whether immigrants who arrive for employment remain with the same company or if they are receiving the promised salary," Maharaj said.

Maharaj said immigrants were essential to New Zealand, but exploitation was unacceptable.

A portrait of employment advocate May Moncur in her office. She is holding casefiles.

May Moncur, an employment law advocate, says the introduction of English-language criteria is a step in the right direction. Photo: The Detail/Sharon Brettkelly

Employment law advocate May Moncur welcomed the proposed English-language requirement for migrants applying for low-skilled roles.

Moncur said limited language abilities often meant that migrant workers can only secure employment within their own communities, thereby increasing the risk of exploitation.

"With a basic English requirement, at least they can access some information, understand their rights and also have the confidence to exercise such a right," she said.

Moncur welcomed Immigration New Zealand's amended power to issue infringement penalties to businesses that take advantage of migrant workers.

However, she said the minimum $1000 fine for non-compliant businesses was too low, arguing that individuals, including company directors and shareholders, should also be held accountable.

"I think my only concern is the level of infringement penalty is still too soft towards exploitive employers," Moncur said. "I think that could be increased."

Immigration lawyer Harris Gu said the new policy would effectively limit the large influx of migrants, which has put pressure on New Zealand's health and education system.

However, he said migrant workers wouldn't be more aware of their labour rights just because they could score higher marks on an English test.

"The awareness can be delivered more effectively through other channels - for example, distributing leaflets or INZ videos about minimum employee rights in their own languages," Gu said.

Frank Xu, director of the New Zealand Chinese Building Industry Association, said there was currently an oversupply of workers in the construction sector.

The circumstances were very different from the labour shortages the sector experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic, he said, which forced Labour to adjust immigration settings to bring more workers into the country to fill vacancies.

With the building sector still in need of certain skills - particularly brick layers, machine operators, electricians and fire protection roles - construction businesses should rethink ways to optimise the use of the existing workforce to avoid being overly reliant on overseas labour, Xu said.

"We should not rely on that long-term," he said. "The industry should encourage more kinds of apprentice training and the government should support such initiatives."

Regarding the government's move to reduce the maximum continuous stay for most level 4 and 5 roles from five years to three years, Xu said exemptions should be granted to highly skilled workers to allow them stay longer.

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