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Hundreds Experienced International Nurses Jobless Amid Shortage

Migrant nurses participate in a rally in Palmerston North on 27 April. Photo: Supplied

Hundreds of experienced international nurses from India who are registered to work in New Zealand are reportedly struggling to find jobs amid a nursing shortage.

The nurses, mostly from southern India, are recent graduates of the Competence Assessment Programme (CAP), a mandatory course the Nursing Council formerly asked internationally qualified nurses to complete before working in New Zealand.

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In December, the Nursing Council announced that migrants from countries other than the US, UK, Ireland, Singapore, and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ontario would need to pass an Objective Structured Clinical Examination (OSCE) before working in the country's healthcare sector.

The new assessment, consisting of both theoretical and clinical components, replaced the CAP pathway.

However, internationally qualified nurses who had signed up for a six- to eight-week CAP course at Nursing Council-accredited providers before 4 December were still allowed to be registered via the CAP pathway - even if the course was undertaken during this calendar year.

As a result, hundreds of these registered nurses now find themselves in a bind after failing to secure employment despite graduating from the CAP course.

At the same time, Te Whatu Ora data obtained by the New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) revealed that more than a quarter of nursing shifts in hospitals fell short of staffing targets in the year leading up to 31 December.

Many of the nurses who are struggling to secure work relocated to New Zealand on a one-year visitor visa to complete the CAP requirements.

"I came to New Zealand with many dreams, but the situation is really bad," said Litty Liju, a nurse with 12 years of experience in the Middle East.

Liju arrived in Palmerston North on a visitor visa to begin a CAP course on 18 February.

"I've applied for more than 500 positions, including hospitals and aged care facilities across both the North and South islands," she said.

Liju said potential employers had declined to sponsor her and, without a work visa, she was stuck in limbo.

She came to New Zealand with her husband and two children aged five and 10, making life especially difficult.

"I cannot send my kids to school and my husband, who is an experienced accountant, is unable to work without a proper visa," Liju said.

Previously employed at the Ministry of Health in Kuwait, Liju said surviving in New Zealand without a job was terrifying.

"I anticipated a short waiting period between finishing the CAP and finding a job, but I never thought it would take this long," she said.

Akhil Venugopal has encountered similar obstacles, with potential employers refusing to offer him work while he is on a visitor visa.

Venugopal, who worked as a surgical nurse for nine years in the Indian city of Bengaluru, also moved to Palmerston North to participate in a CAP course.

"I've applied for more than 400 jobs after finishing the CAP in March," Venugopal said.

He said employers were not willing to sponsor him for work while on a visitor visa.

Venugopal holds a one-year visitor visa but can only stay for six months at a time after entering New Zealand.

"I'm not in a position to buy a ticket home and come back again," he said.

Venugopal has spent about $35,000 on CAP fees, travel costs and living expenses in New Zealand in his bid to secure work.

Saju Cherian is a nurse at Palmerston North Hospital and a member of the nurses’ organization board.

Saju Cherian is a nurse at Palmerston North Hospital. Photo: Supplied

Although employers have offered Venugopal casual or part-time contracts, he is unable to accept them due to his visitor visa status.

"The biggest challenge for us is the lack of a visa, so we request the authorities to consider giving us at least a short-term job search visa," Venugopal said.

Saju Cherian, a nurse at Palmerston North Hospital and a member of the nurses' organization board, said nurses did not anticipate being without work for four or five months after completing a CAP course.

Cherian conducted an informal survey through social media, which revealed that over 400 nurses were affected similarly in the lower North Island.

"I think there will be at least 1,000 nurses without jobs after their registration in New Zealand right now, if we include the whole country, and more are on the way," he said.

Cherian said it was common for Indian nurses to enter the country on visitor visas to participate in the CAP course.

"CAP is only three months or less, so they don't get any other visas in New Zealand," Cherian said.

The Nursing Council was obligated to register international nurses who have completed a CAP course, regardless of whether they can gain employment in New Zealand, a spokesperson from the council said.

"We acknowledge that it is a very stressful situation for those nurses who have not been able to gain employment after completing a CAP and gaining registration, but it is a situation we have no control over," the spokesperson said.

The Nursing Council said 4084 nurses gained registration after completing a CAP between 1 January and 31 December 2023.

"The council is aware that nurses may complete CAP programmes on a visitor visa," the spokesperson said.

Kerri Nuku is the Kaiwhakahaere of  New Zealand Nurses Organisation.

Kerri Nuku, kaiwhakahaere of the New Zealand Nurses Organisation Photo: Nick Tapp

NZNO members rallied across the country on 9 May, calling for additional funds to increase staff numbers.

"The data shows that many shifts fall below targets, indicating that there aren't enough nurses," said Kerri Nuku, kaiwhakahaere of NZNO.

Nuku said reduced staffing levels posed a heightened risk to patient safety and mortality.

Andrew Slater, chief people officer of Health New Zealand, said the figures released by NZNO reflected workforce shortages across New Zealand's health system and overseas.

"The latest data available (as of 31 December 2023) shows we have around 28,200 nursing FTEs (full-time equivalents) across Health NZ," Slater said. "Our vacancy rate for nursing had dropped to 1817 vacancies (or 6.1 percent) as of 31 December 2023.

"These are largely in specific nursing specialist areas, including mental health and addiction services and critical care nurses," he said.

Liju hopes to get a short-term visa to apply for casual jobs so that her family can survive until she gets a permanent job.

"My visa ends in August," she said. "It's a race against time for our family."

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