Immigration reset: A lot of noise … and then nothing!

Last Friday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told business leaders to expect an immigration announcement focussed on attracting highly skilled migrants. Pundits speculated that the government would announce major changes to the skilled migrant visa category and outline their plan for immigration policy in a post-COVID world.

All weekend, we waited with bated breath for details of “the great immigration reset,” only to be told on Monday that there were no new announcements. Instead, we heard the same comments we’ve heard before in different words – oh, and about border exemptions for ultra-wealthy investors.

I suspect that Monday’s non-announcement was the result of some hasty backpedalling. A planned announcement got sidelined for some reason or other, but because they had advertised that it was happening, they had to say something while saying nothing at all.

 “Low-skilled” workers blamed for low wages, but where’s the proof?

A couple of issues did resurface, however. One was the persistent reference to increasing wages. This was led by the bold claim that reliance on short-term temporary workers doing low-skilled jobs was suppressing wages and conditions. But as was pointed out to the Prime Minister on Monday, the , while critical of our reliance on temporary workers, contained no empirical evidence to support the government’s statement.

It’s clear that the changes to the work visa system are intended to create supply issues in the face of increased demand, putting greater upward pressure on wages domestically and reinforcing that by requiring that migrant workers be paid at least 10 percent above minimum wage.

I was also intrigued by the continued reference to “genuine skills shortages.” I’m not sure why they think an industry would be able to fake a skills shortage. Likewise, the persistent reference to “low-skilled work.” I think the point being missed here is that there isn’t much work out there that doesn’t require some form of skill.

Migrant workers aren’t taking only labouring jobs. While they may take jobs that many – including the government – assume New Zealanders can be readily trained into, the underlying assumption is that there are New Zealanders available and willing to be trained into that work. But if the work doesn’t appeal to New Zealanders, no change in work visa rules will change that.

Inconsistent policy ignores market realities 

Many of the “low-skilled” jobs allegedly being done by migrants are in fact being done by open work visa holders who have post-study work rights or work visas based on relationships. Consequently, the new accreditation regime and work visa system don’t apply to those people. A business could simply avoid the need for accreditation status by hiring only working holiday visa holders and holders of open work visas.

The government continually cites the OECD report as evidence of the need for change while overlooking a really simple solution: If you want to stop the country’s reliance on temporary workers, make them resident visa holders. Offering temporary workers a pathway to permanent residence makes sense if the labour market is experiencing persistent shortages.

The vision here appears to be attracting “highly skilled migrants,” but we have yet to see how that’s defined. Is it simply based on pay rate? This approach seems problematic, given that pay is a reflection of market conditions, the strength of an individual’s bargaining position with their employer, and overall labour market demand.

Regardless, attracting highly skilled migrants to New Zealand requires a stable and consistent immigration policy. We don’t have that – not by a long shot. What we do have is so much uncertainty that many are concerned – and rightly so – that coming to New Zealand might leave them high and dry, with no ability to plan for their long-term future.

Not only does this make attracting highly skilled migrants to New Zealand difficult, but it may also turn off the very market they are trying to attract – wealthy investors. If the government can’t get its act together to provide a stable immigration platform, why would anyone risk their capital by investing here? Swinging from being welcoming at one election phase to unwelcoming in the next hardly inspires confidence.

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