An analysis of the 11 May Announcements that rained down on us like arrows from the turrets of the Hermit Kingdom.
May 11 was, by any measure, a milestone. A set of whirly gig announcements from the Prime Minister and the Immigration Minister to a lunch party at Business NZ. The setting is important as Business NZ has been itching for some certainty around final border openings and the general future of our immigration policies amid the prevailing prevarication.
In simple terms, the announcement brought forward Step 5 of the border opening from October to July. It then laid out some changes to the work and residence settings of the future.
This is all the equivalent of a great Kiwi "roof shout" - a tradition where the owners of a new building throw a party when the roof goes on. The walls, doors and windows are yet to come. In this instance, we got some tweaks to the Accredited Employer work visa scheme - some of more note than others. We also learned of some new pathways to residence for certain professionals. Restrictions to post-study working rights for certain international students. Missing to complete the build are the Skilled Migrant, Parent Category and future Investor residence rules - those are very much still to come. As is a review of the Partnership Category whose "living together" requirements have kept so many couples unduly separated particularly through the pandemic.
The critique of the new policies range from Greens holding that the policies are "white elitist" and entrench a two-tier system that will cement a "guest worker" mentality and overlooks specifically the plight of Pacific Islanders and overstayers. To National who have raised concerns about the lack of a direct residence pathway for Nurses; the lack of a Skilled Migrant Category policy to complete the residence options as well as around general capacity to process anything in a timely manner due to poor planning. ACT coming out strongly for the opening of visa processing for split families immediately, rather than having to wait until July. The media in general has picked up that this is all really more of a re-jig. I'll call it a reshuffle as it really is pretty much that - there are no truly new cards on the table.
There can be no doubt that the border closure played into the hands of a government looking to curb numbers with the hitting of the pause button. Leading demographer, Professor Paul Spoonley has called our dependence on immigration an "addiction". 5% of our workforce held a temporary visa - reportedly the highest percentage in the OECD. Much higher in healthcare where 48% of medical specialists, 40% of nurses and 25% of caregivers are migrants. Also in Tech where 55% of jobs are filled by migrants. There had been a steep rise in the number of "low-skilled" visas being issued. The government's manifesto when it came to power in 2017 was to reduce net migration by 20-30,000. Covid has been our rehab.
In May 2021, almost a year to the day, the Minister of Tourism stepping in for the Minister of Immigration had announced the great "immigration reset". A key statement was:
"As we focus on re-opening New Zealand’s borders, we are determined not to return to the pre-COVID status quo."
The last year has therefore been tense as the future direction of our immigration policies hung in what seemed interminable limbo. Caving to business pressure when it occasionally got too much for the government to withhold. In that mix, we went from migrants stealing our jobs and houses, to extending low-skilled work visas, doing away with standdown periods for low skilled workers and creating the primary scarce list which gives residence to the likes of vegetable packers, factory workers, picture framers, certain factory workers, stable hands and machine operators, etc. This see-saw approach has been a bit like the fasting companion I once had who ducked out for an elicit cheese sandwich - wanting to make the break but just not quite being able to walk the talk.
In the backdrop, on 3 May 2021 the government asked the Productivity Commission to look at NZ's immigration policy and to make recommendations for an immigration system fit for the future. There have been 7 pieces of research/advice and 70 submissions to the Commission.
The Labour shortage, meanwhile, became not just tight but critical. A report by Sense Partners for BusinessNZ showed in most parts of the country, including the entire South Island, there is only one able worker for every two jobs advertised. Shamubeel Eaqub, financial analyst for Sense Partners discussed the shortage on 31 March 22 on Radio NZ's Checkpoint - listen here. Note that at that time, the so-called "rebalance" was still expected to take a few months.
On 5 April the Education and Workforce Select Committee heard from top management officials at Immigration NZ and the Ministry it sits under (MBIE). At that meeting, a hot topic of questioning was when would the future pathways to residence be known. INZ indicated it would be July before we had a new Skilled Migrant Category. The only confirmed pathway to residence confirmed at that point was the Work to Residence for those earning twice the median wage. If one listened extra carefully, tucked away was mention that they were looking at other pathways for other "highly skilled".
The topic got a whole lot hotter in Parliament on 14 April during question time when the National Party Opposition Spokesperson for Immigration, Erica Stanford pummeled the Minister of Immigration, Kris Faafoi, for answers as to when a critical healthcare worker currently ineligible for the only existing residence pathway (the famous 2021 Residence Category) would be able to know their fate. The Minister repeatedly said there would be a likely pathway but would not be drawn on precisely what the policy was or when it would be introduced but intimating it would be the resumption of an existing pathway (so we assumed the Skilled Migrant Category) after the end of July.
Then on 4th May, again in Parliament, Erica Stanford gave a blistering speech about the fact our immigration policies were falling behind by not offering clear-cut pathways to residence. It has, indeed, been quite painful these past months, not being able to provide certainty to people wanting to move out as to what their pathway to residence might be.
The Productivity Commission's report meanwhile was completed at the end of April but has not yet been made public. Currently published are the preliminary findings and recommendations. Of note is the key finding that immigration overall has not come at the cost of locals' wages or employment opportunities.
Where we've landed as of May 2022 is (key points):
the bringing of step 5 of the border opening forward to July from October
tweaks to the Accredited Employer Work Visa scheme
confirmation of certain new Residence Pathways
new student visa/post-study work visa rules that will curb numbers of international students
Bringing Step 5 of the border opening forward and what that means in practice:
Step 5 was the point at which visa processing would return to normal i.e. any visa type not already able to be applied for under earlier border stages would now be able to be processed (with one important exception, namely the Parent residence category which is under review).
This step is key to the following cohorts who are not from the 130 or so non-visa-waiver countries:
the remaining split migrant families i.e. partners of workers or students who do not fit existing categories
partners of Kiwis or temporary migrants who don't meet "living together requirements"
parents/grandparents of Kiwis
First on my mind always are the remaining split families who have suffered so much in this pandemic. It has been shocking to still be dealing with parents that have not seen their partners or children in over two years by simply getting trapped in an immigration situation not of their making. Whilst we have had some family reunification border categories along the way, a plethora of students and workers have been so far unable to reunite unless by quitting their NZ job or studies which, for many, has been a very desperate choice. I hear people judging without the full facts or appreciation of the level of investment and dependence on those jobs or studies to keep the family afloat. Many have felt utterly trapped by coming here.
Well, finally, from July these family members will be able to apply for visas:
4 July for those partners that qualify for an open work visa. That would be any partner who meets living together requirements and is the partner of an eligible student or work visa holder
31 July for student and visitor visas. This will be all other partners not falling under the 4 July category
Many partners who held visas that were issued before Covid but were not able to be activated have been asking if those will be replaced. So far, there is no mention of that. The government did reissue over 18,000 Working Holiday Visas unable to be used back in March, but seems unwilling to contemplate a similar gesture towards our split families.
The question on everyone's lips then being how long will it take to actually process fresh visas and of course, we don't know. To make this opening possible, we're told INZ is having to take resources from the 2021 Residence Visa. It's a "rob Peter to pay Paul" situation - something has to give. There are simply not enough resources to go round and hence we're told the 2021 Residence Visa that was promised to be done within a year, could now take 18 months. Another blow to split families that were hoping their reunification could avoid another visa application by being approved residence sooner.
There are also a number of applications in the system that have been pending since 19 March 2020. Some were in the final assessment stages when the border came down. Others were awaiting allocation and were never looked at all. All have been gathering dust and of course, many may no longer meet the criteria for the visa that's pending. E.g. the partner of someone who was a student but has since progressed into work. We hope INZ will take a pragmatic approach and convert and pick up on processing. The easy ones in early July that clearly meet living together requirements will hopefully progress in 1-2 months. We have concerns for those that are deemed not to meet the living together requirements as pre-Covid those could sometimes take several months. These couples have done their share of waiting I feel and should be processed with a major sense of priority over, say, a general tourist. Parents of New Zealanders have also been desperate for their day to come - they too will need to apply from 31 July and have been getting call centre staff telling them it will be 7 months to process. I am not so pessimistic but am also unable to allay fears while not knowing what resources will be put where.
For job seekers, the ability to apply for a "look-see-decide" visitor visa also now recommences as from 31 July. While NZ employers are still much more ready to hire by remote than ever before, we still see instances of wanting the migrant to get here before considering them. So that is an important development for some.
Tweaks to the Accredited Employer Work Visa scheme:
the introduction of a new GREEN LIST (largely a re-hash of the old Long Term Skills Shortage List but now replacing all 3 prior shortage lists) and exempting employers from the labour market test if the candidate and role meet the specifications;
exceptions to the $27.76 pay rate for certain hospitality, tourism and hospitality and trades roles (listed at a new Appendix 14 which has not yet made its way to the Instruction Manual online) - those will need $25 per hour or $25.39 if in the care workforce. These roles will get 2 year rather than 3-year work visas and will be subject to a 12-month stand-down period meaning you can't get two of these visas consecutively;
from December 2022 Partners of Accredited Employer Work Visa applicants will only get open working rights if the main applicant is earning 2 x median wage or meets the Green list requirements;
a specific requirement for CHEFS applying for AEWVs to have a level 4 professional cookery qualification (or NZQA assessed overseas equivalent) even if earning median wage in addition to meeting any other work experience or other specifications stipulated by the employer;
perhaps the biggest surprise, from 2023 a requirement that all employers hiring migrants will need to become accredited - previously it was said only those hiring migrants on employer-assisted visas would need to hold accreditation but from next year, even those hiring students, graduates, working holiday visa holders or partners on open work visas will need to hold the golden ticket!
Confirmed pathways to residence:
at least for now, 55 remains the cut off age for applying for an Accredited Employer Work to Residence type visa;
a new direct pathway to residence for 85 "Tier One" Green List roles meaning from September a person who has a job offer and the qualifications/registration stipulated and meets any particular salary requirements on the list can apply for a new Residence visa category without having to wait for 2 years.;
a resurrection of a two-year Work to Residence pathway for 16 Tier Two roles from 4 July 2022;
New rules for International Students:
increased living expenses from $15,000 to $20,000 per year
changes to post-study work visa rights: Anyone studying less than a Bachelor's degree qualification will only be able to get a post-study work visa if the qualification is relevant to a Green Listed job. 20 such jobs have been identified as having links to such qualifications in NZ). These include: Construction Project Manager; Project Builder; 12 specific engineering roles; Civil Engineering Technician; Electrical Engineering Technician; Secondary School teacher; Early Childhood (Pre-primary School) Teacher; Automotive Electrician; Diesel Motor Mechanic. The days of a level 7 1 year business diploma leading to a post-study visa with that, went up in smoke. The resulting post-study work visa will also only allow work in a Green Listed role although it can be for below minimum wage. See further below for perhaps the greatest shock of all students and employers will need to be aware of and that is that from 2023, all employers hiring students or graduates will have to hold Accreditation.
funds needed for post-study visa applicants increase from $4200 to $5000
from December 2022, partners of students it seems will need to qualify for a work visa in their own right rather than by virtue of being the partner of a student visa holder
the length of a post-study visa will match the length of the course except for Masters and PhD graduates where the length of visa will continue to be the standard 3 years. So e.g. a 1-year level 7 graduate diploma course will only ever get a 1 year post-study visa.
In critiquing policy, it is always important to be constructive about what could have been done differently. It remains my view that the following could have helped alleviate many of the current problems:
for all partner visas issued pre-Covid, I would have simply issued those visas on the same high-trust model applied to Working Holiday-ites. High-trust would have gone at least some way to offering compensation and would have the double whammy of alleviating visa processing pressures on INZ;
I would have re-issued/extended post-study work visas for those international graduates who lost out - a show of good faith to a pool of willing workers seems like a win-win situation to me;
for critical purpose visas I would have granted work and study visas at the outset rather than the visitor visas families get which causes them to have to apply when landing in NZ for a whole new set of visas for kids to go to school and partners to work. This was ok in the very beginning when Covid prevented things like medicals and police checks required for longer visas, but that has long since not been the case. This would have taken a whole swathe of visa processing out of the system freeing up resources to deal with the split families;
I would not be forcing employers to become Accredited - I believe there really are existing checks and balances in the immigration system that are sufficient but I would have bolstered those with the requirement that employers meet recruitment fees as that has been a serious issue and I would have also bolstered meaningful settlement support requirements. I would have retained the job check portion of the scheme only to make sure employers and not migrants have skin in the game when it comes to obtaining a visa;
when it came to the RV21, I would have made sure the split families got priority alongside those who had already applied for residence under a different category. I would have had much more cohesive, logical criteria for the rest making sure that for those for whom residence was a bonus windfall (R21 for many has been just that) they would have needed to be sequenced into residence over the next 3 years. What we've done instead is try to squish 5 years of residence quota into 1 year, causing these inevitable bottlenecks. Poor planning by any standards;
Nurses would have been red-carpeted throughout the pandemic on express pathways to residence;
I would have retained a pathway to residence for career aged caregivers - we fought to get them recognised as skilled and in 2019 for the first time they appeared on a skilled list, only to now be taken off the Green Listed roles-to-residence;
I would have removed the living together requirements that have caused so much unnecessary family separation, loss of a migrant healthcare workforce in particular (given so many critical health workers hail from cultures where marriage comes before living together) and have taken up unfathomable INZ resources for no tangible gain. This issue is still biting both in the 2021 Residence with hundreds of applications now on hold due solely to problems in this arena. Come 4 July it's going to bite again as couples who can't meet the requirements will have to wait yet again to have their visas processed;
I would have ensured the Skilled Migrant Category announcements came now, not later;
I would have fired up parent visas at the earliest opportunity as this is a cohort that has suffered terrible family separation now for an extended period;
I will be controversial in saying I would have retained the 55 years cut-off only for certain professions or regions as Australia does;
I would have set out very clearly how these announcements fit with the recommendations of the Productivity Commission or otherwise as this announcement was completely bereft of reference to the 7 preliminary recommendations made.
Licensed Immigration Adviser 200800243