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Hold onto your parachute: Accredited Employer Work Visa policy drop expected:

Updated: Feb 25

Our new Immigration Minister, Erica Stanford, has spoken yesterday in her first consolidated interview with Jack Tame since becoming the Minister.

Jack Tame Q: Should we expect that the settings under the Accredited Employer Work Visa as they stand are likely to be tightened?
The Hon. Erica Stanford A: yes.

The Immigration New Zealand website sets out the aims of the AEWV policy:

"It is designed to ensure New Zealanders are first in line for jobs and makes it easier for employers to hire skilled migrants where genuine skill or labour shortages exist.
It also helps combat migrant exploitation by ensuring only employers who are accredited can hire migrant workers."

The reality has been very different. The issues we, at the Coalface, have been reporting since early into the piece are:

Policy Flaws:

  • no mention that a job needs to be "sustainable" when considering if it is acceptable;

  • using wage as a proxy for skills;

  • allowing employers to run "Zero Zero" job checks i.e. specifying no experience and no qualifications which means you could, as a migrant, apply even for a role deemed normally to require a certain level of experience or qualification without proving any (!);

  • allowing employers to simply declare that there are no suitable Kiwis without the need to prove it;

  • "suitable" no longer includes "trainable" thereby excluding Kiwis who can be readily trained into a job;

  • fragmenting the work visa process into the Job Check and the AEWV which means immigration officers do not get to see the full picture at the Job Check stage.

Under the old Essential Skills Work Visa policy scrapped in 2022 which worked reasonably well:

  • work visa applicants always had to meet a certain minimum qualification or experience level unless the job was a Skill Level 5;

  • employers had to prove there was no suitable New Zealander and, in the case of the lower skill levels (4 and 5) go through Work and Income to ensure there were no suitable/readily trainable Kiwis on a Jobseeker Support benefit available for the role;

  • there was one integrated process for deciding the Employer's and Employee's case which meant immigration officers got to see the whole picture, not just a fragment.

Process Flaws:

Add to this the decision by MBIE officials to do minimal checks amid the launch of a whole new visa process at the same time as opening our borders post-Covid (not the best of ideas), we then saw an added layer of systemic failures;

  • the rubber stamping of Accreditation applications with automated processes & no meaningful enquiry into the sustainability of the business;

  • the lack of labour market testing scrutiny by Immigration New Zealand;

  • a dropping of standards relating to checking an applicant's work experience.

This perfect storm led to:

  • the mushrooming of job selling as Job Tokens became currency & word got out that Immigration to NZ was now a soft touch;

  • the mushrooming of High-Volume Triangular Employer Accreditation (pre-Covid, the number of labour-hire companies accredited reached a high of just 9 in 2020; by 27 January 2024, there were 215 labour-hire companies accredited as high-volume triangular employers. Immigration New Zealand approved 39,865 job tokens to these employers).

Here are some further salient statistics that may raise an eyebrow or two:

Total approvals of AEWVs from when the scheme opened to November 2023: 94,190. Declined 1,531.

I then looked at occupational categories where there were 1000+ approvals (aside from healthcare workers) and the following all supposedly met the labour market test that there are no suitable New Zealanders available (while those on Job Seeker benefit has increased by 20,000). Those include:

1,178 Beauty Therapists (including Nail Technicians as a "speciality")

10,359 Building Labourers

1003 Bus Drivers

4113 Carpenters

3348 Cooks

1191 Commercial Cleaners

3438 Contract Administrators

2011 Dairy Farm Workers

1000 Delivery Drivers

1741 Fast Food Cooks

1399 Kitchenhands

1706 Meat Process Workers

1445 Painting Trades Workers

1795 Retail Supervisors

2774 Truck Drivers

I am of the view that many of the above would be quite genuine and may well have passed the old, more stringent labour market test. Many times in my career, I have been utterly surprised by the outcome of genuine recruitment campaigns, carefully run. For a busy restaurant, trying to recruit a full-time, reliable Kitchenhand can be an absolute mission. Look around all our major building sites and you find an array of migrant workers - I was just up at Auckland airport noticing the latest developments there and stopped to thank some overseas workers as I suspect they are not often thanked for their work. We must not default to knee-jerk thinking that these jobs are necessarily a case of migrants "taking our jobs".

However, despite common perceptions that immigration advisors are necessarily biased by vested interest, many of us do care about the labour market test. Most of us have children of our own that we do not want to see being passed over in the job market due to ulterior motives. We have been troubled by the holes in the policies and processing of these AEWVs. It is a layer cake that needs to be looked at with honesty and the least politicking. These next changes need to be done with greater acknowledgement of the nuances, rather than by taking a blunt-edged carving knife to it all. We also await the results of the review of the AEWV scheme, commissioned by the outgoing government. It may need to be taken with a grain of salt as the terms were so narrow as to exclude any look at the actual policy.

I was challenged by a friend only this morning as to whether this government was being two-faced in calling for faster processing when the borders opened, while now asking for tightenings. I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. We need a system that can both manage risk and deliver robust, consistent and fast decisions.

I'm then often challenged about which political party is more "migrant-friendly". To be frank, it's not the government's role to be migrant-friendly. The Immigration Act 2009 has as its purpose "to manage immigration in a way that balances the national interest, as determined by the Crown, and the rights of individuals." In other words, it's a balancing act and getting the balance right is an ongoing work in progress. Clear on the Hon. Erica Stanford's mind is the high net migration number and what is a sustainable growth pattern for New Zealand (aka what is our "absorptive capacity". As to that, she has said;

"We can tutu around with the short-term settings, but we need to put a general government policy statement in place so that we can actually start to have some transparency and some planning. What is our absorptive capacity? Who do we need? Where do we need them and actually plan a lot better. So I'm starting to go down that track."

Another good read in the last week has been the article of Liam Dann, Herald Business reporter, following the release of the latest stats that show a population increase of 2.8% in the last year, or as Jack Tame put it, a population increase the size of Dunedin. The headline: "Is New Zealand’s population growing too fast for our economy?"

Whatever else New Zealand settles on - and we are far from alone in having this debate with ourselves (the UK, Canada and Australia are all now trying to turn taps off in various directions)... here are two golden quotes that we should bear in mind.

On balance, I think we should be grateful we are a nation that can use immigration as a lever to address labour shortages and prop up growth.

Every number in the migration statistics is a human who made a huge and brave choice to pack up their life and take a risk on the New Zealand economy.

To round off this post, I recommend you listen to the Minister by clicking on the interview link below. Whatever criticisms may be levelled, she is informed, and willing to discuss (rationally).

Katy Armstrong

Stop Press: just moments after publishing this blog, we were alerted to a request by Immigration NZ in the context of a Job Check:

For almost two years we have been waiting to see this and for that reason, have been asking employers to provide a detailed breakdown. It has been Immigration New Zealand that was not asking for that breakdown, rather relying on the "pinky promise" the Minister has referred to. It seems the tides are now a-turning.

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