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Immigration Tightening Might Only Be Temporary: Erica Stanford

Immigration Minister Erica Stanford

While she is turning the tap down for now, Immigration Minister Erica Stanford says the reverse might be the case next year, depending on how the economy goes.

Stanford unveiled a range of changes to the Accredited Employer Worker Visa scheme on Sunday, saying they would help protect against exploitation and address "unsustainable" levels of migration.

She pointed to the near-record 173,000 non-New Zealand citizens who migrated here in 2023, and said the changes would focus on using the local labour market first, while still attracting high-skilled migrants.

The changes - which took effect immediately - included English language requirements for low-skilled Level 4 and 5 roles, with employers required to engage with Work and Income before filling those positions. The length of stay for those roles was also reduced from five to three years.



"Last year, 20,000 people went on the benefit - at the same time, we brought in 52,000 low-skilled workers," Stanford told Morning Report on Monday.

"Now, those numbers don't add up, especially as the economy starts to turn and we have more and more people on a Jobseeker benefit. So it's my job to make sure we are putting Kiwis first in line.

"And so what we're doing here is just saying, all you need to do as an employer in those roles is when you advertise on Seek and Trade Me, advertise with the MSD (Ministry of Social Development) as well. It's a simple advertisement. And if MSD tell you that, 'Look, don't even bother advertising, we don't have anyone in this region,' then you won't need to. So, you know, we've thought about it quite carefully."

Previous plans to add 11 roles such as welders, fitters and turners to the immigration Green List have also been cancelled, and bus and truck driver applications would be closed "as the shortages of drivers reported when this was established have been filled".


Also Read: https://www.indianweekender.co.nz/news/immigration-overhaul-english-language-skills-rules-tightened


"With the bus drivers and truck drivers, we took a really close look at that," Stanford said. "The advice from my officials was that we bought in 3000 truck drivers and almost 1000 bus drivers, and the agreement that we had with the sector at the time under the previous government was, we will put these truck drivers and bus drivers on a pathway to residence. It is time limited to help you get over the critical shortages, and once those critical shortages are solved, then it is on you to be able to train and retain your own workers.

"That was the agreement, and the figures are such that we talked to the Minister of Transport and NZTA (New Zealand Transport Agency/Waka Kotahi), and they agreed that the numbers that have come in have eased those shortages. So it's now for the sector, and they always knew that."

Labour said much more was needed for the Immigration Minister to achieve her aims, and questioned how this could be achieved while the government was cutting the public sector.

However, the Green Party says the AEWV scheme - introduced by Labour after the borders reopened in the wake of the Covid-19 response - is a failure, and the coalition government should start over.

Both parties agreed the top priority for reducing exploitation was allowing migrants to work for someone other than the employer that initially hired them.

Stanford said that would be looked at in a wider review of immigration settings.

"There are two things going on here. One, we're responding to the Bestwick review. But secondly, we had to make some changes now because we've got high migrant exploitation and unsustainable numbers coming into the country. So there are some things that we needed to do immediately.

"We are going to look now, turn our attention to the actual settings of the AEWV. We've already been thinking about them, and what are some of the structural problems with AEWV. And we've got a bigger piece of work to do."

The opposition parties also said the Labour Inspectorate - the agency tasked with investigating cases of exploitation and modern slavery - should be better resourced to ensure any abuses are detected.

Stanford said her expectation was that more businesses breaking the rules would lose their accreditation as a result of the changes.

'It falls a long way short' - Labour

Labour's Immigration spokesperson Phil Twyford told RNZ the changes the minister had brought in were "minor tweaks".

"She's slightly adjusted a few knobs on the dashboard but it falls a long way short, I think, of what's needed to bring inward migration down to more sustainable levels and actually get the focus back on skilled migration.

"If Erica Stanford wants to deliver the kind of bold change that she has been talking up for a long time, she's going to need a lot more than this."

Phil Twyford

Phil Twyford Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The AEWV scheme has been plagued by a "light touch" approach to applications, lax checks, and dodgy overseas-based agents charging up to $50,000 to clients - promising a job in New Zealand in exchange.

Asked if Labour took responsibility for that approach, Twyford said the country was facing acute skill shortages at the time.

"Industries across the country were screaming for workers and we did open the door to meet that need - but I think it's clear to everybody that the current levels of inward migration are unsustainable and they need to be reset."

He denied it was a mistake to bring in the new visa at a time when the immigration system was under huge pressure because of the border reopening.

"No, I don't think it was a mistake. I think the changes were needed for skilled migration, but... it's pretty clear I think to everybody that the settings need to be adjusted and there needs to be much more investment in checks and the due diligence to stop the minority, the tiny minority, of unscrupulous employers ripping off the system and treating migrant workers so badly, and Labour accepts that completely."

He said boosting the resources of the Labour Inspectorate was "an essential thing that needs to happen", but he was concerned the changes were coming when the government was demanding cuts of 7.5 percent from Immigration and its parent department, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).

"With those kind of public service cuts I just don't know how Erica Stanford is going to be able to deliver the kind of changes that she says she wants to."

He said Labour recognised changes to the scheme were needed, and they would fully support the key change required: decoupling the visa from single employers - but he did not think the AEWV scheme needed to go back to the drawing board.

"The thing about the Accredited Employer Work Visa is if we didn't have it, you'd have to invent something that looks pretty much like it."

'We would have to redefine it from the start' - Greens

Green Party Immigration spokesperson Ricardo Menéndez March told RNZ the changes were just putting a fresh coat of paint on a failed system "while at the same time caving to dog-whistle politics around migrants taking local jobs".

"The system needs a complete overhaul and the minister needs to go back to the drawing board with migrant workers' rights and the wellbeing of locals at top of mind," he said.

"The Accredited Employer Work Visa does not work in practice because all it does is it gives employers a greater ability to control workers, while at the same time leaving workers vulnerable to exploitation, and there are no sufficient checks and balances.

Green MP Ricardo Menendez March questioning a Minister in select committee.

Ricardo Menéndez March Photo: Phil Smith

"We would have to redefine it from the start, and yes, that would mean going back to square one and redefine the immigration system so that it doesn't enable exploitation."

Abolishing the requirement tying migrant workers to single employers was the single most meaningful change the government could make to address exploitation, he said.

"When your whole ability to stay in the country depends on your employer, you're left vulnerable to exploitation: to be forced to work more hours than you should, to be paid less than you should.

"Those workers have few avenues to hold that employer to account and [the system] at the same time enables modern slavery practices."

He said the government was relying on temporary migrant workers, which meant employers would continue to need to bring workers from overseas.

"The best way of tackling this would be by granting residency pathways to migrants - something the minister hasn't signalled she wants to do."

He said the Greens had long called for a better-resourced Labour Inspectorate, but "it's not an either-or, it's a yes-and".

"Decoupling work visas from single employers would prevent exploitation happening in the first place... preventing exploitation should be the top priority of the minister rather than having more ambulances at the bottom of the cliff".

Menéndez March also criticised the English language requirements, saying the tests required a level of reading and comprehension "way beyond a native English speaker would have", and migrants were often asked to retake the tests for different applications.

"It is bizarre to be asking someone who already proved in the past they had an acceptable level of reading and writing skills, when actually all you end up doing is making a person spend a few hundred dollars more and at the same time making that person feel like their English skills will never be good enough.

"It also entrenches a culture of treating migrants in a low-trust way, when locals are not tested on a regular basis around their ability to read and write for the purposes of applying for jobs in the way that migrants do... employers are actually able to assess pretty easily whether someone's ability to communicate will be adequate to the job."

Stanford said the "vast proportion" of migrants being ripped off by unscrupulous employers could not speak any English, something she said was noted in the Bestwick review.

"We are responding to that review, and also bringing ourselves into line with Australia, the UK and Canada who have exactly the same.

"And look, it is a very, you know, basic standard of English. We're not talking about the same level of English you'd need to get residence, but it's nice to make sure that you understand your contract, that you're not being exploited in the workplace, you're not being exploited when you go get a car loan and that you're able to operate in society."

If shortages emerged again, Stanford said she would not hesitate to turn the tap the other way.

"That's the nature of the immigration system. I tell you what, next year, I might be saying 'loosen them again'. That's what happens. You know, you recalibrate your immigration settings to the current economic settings, and that's exactly what we're doing. It's what any responsible good minister would do."

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