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Navy with a dash of turquoise, pink & yellow - that's our New Immigration Ministerial outlook:

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

We've all been absorbing a New Zealand first (pun intended, as NZ First is the only Coalition party not to be in this new tripartite Immigration portfolio). You will read many iterations of what Immigration Advisers think is going to be the way forward, but here's my take. Firstly, this is what we have: 3 Ministers, not just the normal 2.

Erica Stanford, daughter of a Dutch Immigrant, is highly respected among immigration professionals, whether or not supportive of the government as a whole. She is actually the 60th Immigration Minister New Zealand has had and only the 2nd woman (there was Leanne Dalziel - Labour - back in 1999 to 2004). The last few years under the outgoing government saw 3 out of 4 of its Ministers fall from grace. Followed by Andrew Little, who inherited a mess of migrant exploitation created by his predecessors. It's been an unhappy portfolio in huge need of a large dose of TLC.

So, with this Trio, what can we expect?

Now that's just me being a bit flippant, but it's true that here, the colour blue dominates and blue is linked to the political "right". It's always been fascinating to me that in Western Europe, for example, the far right is associated with anti-immigrant policies, as well as opposition to globalism and European integration. Here in New Zealand, at least, "the right" (which by many measures is a pretty centrist right) is perceived as being "pro-immigration" while "the left" more immigration unfriendly. We need to peel back the layers.

National's track record

National is the party that in 2013 closed the Long Term Business Visa and in 2014 replaced it with the Entrepreneur Category which, at its lowest point, reached 90% or higher decline rates. In 2016 National raised the bar for Skilled Migration to 160 points. 160 was a dramatic hike at the time and the number applying took an immediate tumble. In 2016, National froze the Parent Category to assess the impacts of costs to make sure if policies were in the right place. Then Prime Minister, John Key, said it would be a temporary measure but then Labour came in and continued the pause, battling with NZ first to get any concessions to re-open the category. In 2017, a stand-down period for temporary migrants was first introduced to prevent "lower-skilled, lower-paid" migrant workers from becoming well-settled in New Zealand without a pathway to residence.

The fact is, New Zealand has, under successive governments, grappled with how to arrive at immigration policies that best balance the needs for skills and family reunion with all the other considerations Kiwis care about i.e. pressure on housing, schooling, infrastructure, health, and generally not allowing "cheap labour" to displace New Zealanders in work. Labour was not wrong, nor the only party, to want to address what it perceived to be too high a reliance on migrant workers. However, its bulldozer-ish approach of the last few years has gone down very badly in many a quarter. It was probably not so much the nature of the changes, but the arrogant way it set about making those. Like an authoritarian parent with lip service to consultation.

Initiatives such as strengthening the apprenticeship schemes have been good. Using immigration as one of the tools to leverage wage increases has been more controversial - forcing businesses to pay a migrant worker a certain minimum level that is higher than the official minimum or the living wage has actually in many cases, caused real problems for businesses that genuinely struggle to meet those wages. It sets up a blunt-edged double standard which is more a question of "do as I say" rather than a well-articulated set of principles. A healthy system should not pander to businesses wanting to simply stagnate the economy & profiteer through a race to the bottom on wages, but should also listen to the genuine concerns of businesses that struggle to access quality workers via a system that is not obstructive. It will be interesting to compare and contrast the incoming government to see which, in practice, turns out to be the true listening government.

What changes can we expect?

Erica Stanford, as mentioned, is respected because she is the most clued-up Minister we will have had in a long time. In opposition, she made it her business to understand the portfolio. During the border closure, she made a name for herself by championing the Split Families and generally running rings around the government over some of the more abject policies - such as keeping Nurses and Teachers separated from their own children while looking after ours.

Due to having the Education portfolio, however, she will need the help of her two Associates & can benefit also from significant input from the right quarters. She will want to send a message to business that she is there to listen. She will be well aware of the "change fatigue". Any more changes now need to be mostly beneficial to employers or migrants - the least amount of sticks being wielded.

I believe she will first look to build a solid relationship with Immigration New Zealand ("INZ") and the industry. INZ has been through the wringer and needs a good solid run of stability. However, one of the government's overall priorities is to pare back any deemed padding in government departments. There are a number of positions within INZ that could be deemed non-essential. What INZ still struggles with is consistency and quality of decision-making. Industry can help but needs the incentive of priority processing for decision-ready applications. More input from industry into policy was, in the past, valued by Immigration New Zealand and prevented anomalies in policy-making. This was largely blocked in the last 6 years and I believe we will see the balance restored.

The immediate priorities will be to implement those policies already announced i.e.

NEW PARENT/GRANDPARENT VISITOR VISA: This will be for 5 years. Both National and Act campaigned on this. Act called it the Unite Visa. National called it the Parent Visa Boost. The aim was the same: to allow Parents/Grandparents to come for up to 5 years (renewable) subject to either holding health insurance (National's policy) or paying an annual $3500 to cover potential health costs (Act's policy). This new visa will be very welcome to many but of course, it is a compromise. Many want their parents to be able to move permanently. The Parent Residence Category, as signalled above, has been a political hot potato for quite some time and this new visitor visa will be the sweetener. It will improve on the current iteration which is for 3 years but only actually allows 3 stays of 6 months inside those 3 years.

A BETTER DEAL FOR INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS: To help revitalise the international education sector and make us more competitive. There are 3 main plans:

  • Currently, students can work for 20 hours while studying. National wants to take that to 24 hours. New Zealanders will not even notice, but students will. They will be able to get more NZ experience and also cope with our high cost of living (paying $5 for a cabbage is definitely not a great selling point for NZ).

  • Furthermore, National wants to give better post-study visas to some students who currently miss out.

  • Thirdly, they want to grant working rights to the partners of students studying at level 7 or higher - something that is patchy currently. E.g. the Partner of a Full Fee-Paying student on a Nursing Degree can't work whereas the partner of a Master of Business student can.

RESTORING FULL PARTNER OPEN WORKING RIGHTS. The backdrop here is that in the past when Partners of Workers got working rights, those were completely "open", allowing work in any job, for any employer, at any wage and even self-employment. Then in May of this year, the new rule came in dividing up which partners can get open working rights. The majority now get restricted working rights.

REVIEWING INZ FEES with possible hikes from mid-2024. The costs would be benchmarked against Australia - increasing to up to 90% of what Australia costs. This graph is the best representation of what we could be looking at:

Of note is that it doesn't show the complete costs in Australia. In many cases, people also have to pay for skills assessments and English tests even for work visas that our system does not require. In my experience, while people will complain about a hike in fees the market generally readjusts. However, - it will especially bite when it comes e.g. to partners or dependent children of New Zealanders where I believe respite should be given. For families already struggling to put food on the table, it would be extremely tough and there is a difference between the rights of a New Zealander to bring their partner here versus those of families seeking to make the move together for the first time, where one could argue it's simply fair to have a "pay to play" model.

Other changes that may be up for consideration (with some crystal ball gazing) or our on our wish list.

UPGRADING TEACHERS TO TIER 1 OF THE GREEN LIST: Erica Stanford personally fought for Nurses to go from Tier 2 up to Tier 1 of the Green List. This makes a huge difference to the migrant as being on Tier 1 is basically getting a "red carpet" treatment when it comes to applying for residence. That, in turn, makes it a much more competitive recruitment tool.

REVISITING THE USE OF THE MEDIAN WAGE: it's hard to know exactly what the government will decide here. Indexation to median wage across most of our immigration policies has had some extremely mixed results. It feels that in many situations, the pressures on migrants and their employers is too much. When the new government coalition agreement came in it was reported in the news that the median wage for skilled visas would be axed. This is not a confirmed policy. Rather, we do tend to think the proposed hike of the median wage to $31.61 from 27 February may just be placed on ice while some broader thinking around remuneration thresholds is given space.

RESTORING THE 90-DAY CLAUSE FOR ALL BUSINESSES: Currently, the situation is that businesses with under 20 employees can use a 90-day clause unless it's to hire a migrant on an Accredited Employer Work Visa. This exclusion for migrants came into effect in October to address the exploitation issues besetting the AEWV scheme. Employers with 20+ employees cannot use such clauses at all - whether for Kiwis or migrants. It seems the government du jour wants to make this clause available to all businesses and presumably also to those hiring migrants. On this, I personally have mixed views. I've never been a fan of a family moving across the world to come in with a 90-day clause. It's one thing for a Kiwi to be let go and quite another for a new migrant whose visa is tied to the employer to have that experience. The Kiwi can go and look for work and start the very next day. The migrant, especially under this new AEWV scheme, could wait months for a variation of their visa. Equally, I understand the employer's perspective when taking a risk on employing a migrant. However, there is the good old-fashioned probationary clause which can strike a happier balance. Employers can and should undertake more due diligence than we often see in hiring a migrant in the first place. On this, however, the government seems set. Migrants do always have the opportunity to negotiate and not accept a 90-day clause in any event. It's just that most don't feel confident to do so.

A BREAK FOR HOSPITALITY - ESPECIALLY CHEFS: Well those of you who know me will also know how hard I fought earlier this year to clean up the anomaly that CHEFS were the only type of worker that needed a prescribed qualification which no amount of work experience could replace. It was absurd and we needed to go to the media with full force to get that particular anomaly fixed. The problem now is that almost no Chefs can get to residence and traditionally, New Zealand struggles to have enough chefs. At the same time, we have watched so many no more meritorious roles come onto the Green List and more are to come. I believe there should be a specific policy for CHEFS comparable to e.g. Telecommunications Technicians where it only takes a wage of $34.11 to have a pathway to residence. I think it's time Hospitality was given a break, quite frankly!

REVIVING THE ENTREPRENEUR CATEGORY: That is pretty much the only category Labour didn't smash apart and attempt to re-set. Decline rates have been so extreme in the past, that the category is virtually a dead duck. In 2017/18 354 applications were made and 319 of those were declined. Last year, only 20 applications were made, of which 12 were declined! The top advisers in the country have long since lost faith in the category and while I have no issue with wanting high-calibre applicants and business plans, the policy does need to be workable. Particularly with so many business people in New Zealand needing succession plans. Somewhere between the pre-2013 and the 2014 policies is needed.

ADJUSTING THE SKILLED MIGRANT POINTS SYSTEM: As written, the new 6-point category has landed us in a situation where some of the best tradespeople that New Zealand needs have been left short and where overseas work experience counts for nothing (even though more highly regarded by many employers than a Degree. The policy is riddled with anomalies that need cleaning up. The fact a Metal Fabricator has a pathway to residence through the Green List but a Sheet Metal Worker does not is but one example of the many blunt edges the newly crafted policies have created.

Perhaps more on the "stick" side, so remains to be seen if there is an appetite:

RETHINKING OUR AGE LIMITS: With a skilled migrant age cut-off of 55, an ageing population and a certain angst about superannuation, the government could well decide to review the age limits. Australia cuts off for most at 45.

STRICTER LABOUR MARKET TESTS: now this one may surprise. It would not be in Act's thinking but the fact that most of those coming in on Accredited Employer Work Visas are actually being hired in what has traditionally been called "low-skilled" jobs with very few checks and balances could raise a few National/NZ First eyebrows. Under the old Essential. Skills scheme, the famous "labour market test" was actually considerably tougher. It used to be necessary to show one's hand in terms of who had been rejected for jobs and also to prove a person was not trainable. Nowadays, a simple declaration suffices. This has led to some dubious results and we all know about the selling of Job Tokens. This could prove an interesting area of policy discussion. The Job Check has, ironically, been Labour's policy to supposedly make things tougher. In reality, it was about as close to Act's idea of simply charging an employer levy to hire a migrant) as a Labour policy could ever get. Jobs for money! Now that there is backtracking to show some teeth, it is gumming up the system (now taking 4-6 weeks, not the original 10 days as promised). It has not provided the promised certainty for the worker either. I suspect, however, it will be hard to pare it back (though I would certainly argue for it to be scrapped & would prefer employers to spend their money on contributing to the migrant's costs, not feeding INZ's coffers). Perhaps a mid-way set of adjustments will be brought in: tougher labour market & other checks for some roles. Relaxations for others. E.g. Longer Job Check duration for Green List roles would make sense. For a Green List Job Check to cover any region in New Zealand would also start to dull some of the blunt edges that cause resentment by employers having to go through what feels like a needless exercise.

Lastly and perhaps above all else:

GETTING REAL CHANGE IN IMMIGRATION PROCESSING: A different approach to achieving efficiency without taking fees to 90% of Oz would be to incentivise the submission of decision-ready applications. Immigration New Zealand steadfastly creates systems that do the opposite. If case officers could spend a 1/3rd of their time coming to good decisions, it may not be necessary to hike fees by much at all. The new government has a perfect opportunity to make its mark by setting new standards & creating new, meaningful efficiencies not seen before. The way to do that is to create priority processing for decision-ready applications. Not to charge for those who pay a priority fee but present a poor application.

To conclude: this government inherits a situation where so much water has flowed under the bridge. It's hard to make any more truly dramatic changes. However, there is still room to make a real difference and to create a system we can all be proud of.

Katy Armstrong

Licensed Adviser # 200800243

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