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New Language Rules Could Force Indebted Migrants To Leave NZ

The woman says she was underpaid and is also owed wages but is fearful she won't qualify for a new visa. Photo: 123RF

Exploited migrants are concerned that the new English language requirement for work visas could force them to return home, tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

People applying for low-skilled jobs - level 4 and level 5 roles in the Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations (ANZCO) - under the accredited employer work visa (AEWV) scheme must now meet a basic standard of English.

The government said the changes will help protect migrants from exploitation and address unsustainable net migration.

However, many of the hundreds of migrants who were issued with migrant exploitation protection visas (MEPVs), fear they can't meet the requirement.



Yu, who only wants to give her surname, is one of nearly 900 migrants on a MEPV and among 52,000 low-skilled migrants who entered the country last year.

She said she had to borrow about $20,000 for her visa and job at a commercial laundry facility in Auckland, but was paid less than the minimum wage.

"We sometimes work up to 300 hours a month, but we only get about $3200, it comes to about less than $13 an hour," she said.

Yu left that job in February still owed six weeks' wages and alongwith three other workers is now taking legal action against her former employer, but due to her lack of English knowledge, she now has little hope of getting a work visa under the new rules.

She said while she understood why the changes were brought in, she hoped people who had already been exploited might be exempt.


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"It's got its reasons, they can put these rules on people applying in the future, but for people who are already here, they should be more considerate, because when we first came here these rules didn't exist, otherwise we wouldn't have come."

Gong, who also doesn't want his full name used, is also on a MEPV after paying about $15,000 for a construction job that didn't exist.

The 42-year-old carpenter with more than two decades of experience has now found another job, but believed he had no chance under the new language rule.

"I'm just starting to familiarise myself with the environment here, and starting a normal job after this new boss gave me an opportunity, but now I can't go on to a new work visa and they need language skills, it's too unfair," he said.

Gong said his new boss has applied for his visa under a lower skill level role which has a language requirement, rather than carpentry which doesn't.

He said his boss hasn't explained to him why it was done this way.

An Auckland construction company owner Allen Li said he was aware of many employers putting workers on lower-level visas because they required less documentation about previous work history.

He said most workers from mainland China struggled to provide evidence of their work history, such as tax records, due to the informal labour market.

He predicted many Chinese migrant workers would be affected by the language requirement.

"Over the past two years, based on what I've seen in the industry, I reckon over 90 percent of the Chinese workers who come are level 4 or level 5 jobs, such as scaffolders, steel fixers or general construction workers," he said.

Advocate calls for grace period for exploited workers

Advocate Anu Kaloti says affected workers have contacted her, including truck drivers and commercial cleaners.

Kaloti said the aggressive and abrupt announcement was unreasonable and inequitable for workers of different skill levels.

The language requirement would not stop exploitation whereas scrapping a visa tied to a single employer would.

In the meantime, Kaloti was calling for the government to consider a transition period to allow migrants to apply for visas under the old rules.

"These people have suffered enough, they've been scammed, they've been stolen from, the least this government can do is to treat them with care," she said.

Immigration Minister Erica Stanford said the government would not consider giving an exemption or grace period for those on exploitation protection visas on low-skilled jobs who did not meet the language requirement.

"The government is committed to strengthening the integrity of the AEWV system, and the minimum English language requirement has been introduced for lower skill level roles because of the higher risk of exploitation at these lower levels.

"Requiring a minimum level of English will reduce the vulnerability of migrants to exploitation as they will be better able to understand their rights, access support services, and report abuses," she said in a statement.

In 2023, more than 170,000 migrants entered New Zealand, and the minister told Morning Report that 52,000 were low skilled - which amounts to just under a third.

At a select committee meeting on Wednesday, the minister said the proportion of low skilled workers was close to a half of all migrants.

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