Is our strict border control damaging New Zealand businesses?

Since border closures began on 19th March 2020, immigration in New Zealand has been put almost completely on hold. Immigration law expert Aaron Martin from NZIL explains the implications of this on New Zealand business.   

For the last 5 months, Immigration New Zealand (INZ) has gone from being a very passive recipient of a flood of visa applications by those seeking to work/live/travel/visit/study in New Zealand – to putting up a dam, and having a very rigid system of strict selection mandated entirely by the New Zealand Government.

Workers are only permitted if they are “essential workers” or “critical workers”.

Critical…in what sense?

‘Essential workers’ are those considered to be people needed for the response to the COVID-19 epidemic – but with COVID-19 now well-managed, this group is arguably less of a priority.

Then the ‘critical worker’ category seemed almost an invention created from thin air, so that Government ministers could “save face” after being caught opening the border to 56 Avatar workers on May 31, based on what appeared to be whispered conversations in corridors with lobbyists.

After the scandal of the Avatar workers this category was quickly constructed – seemingly to make it appear as though this was the criteria being applied by ministers. Albeit, a criteria that was unknown and unavailable to every other employer until it was hurriedly published after the scandal came out!

The issue is that what the government defines as ‘critical’ has nothing to do with the context of the employer’s business making the request to Immigration.  And the number of declined requests by businesses to have workers permitted entry as ‘critical’ to their business far exceeds the number approved.

Here at NZIL we’ve seen well-known businesses and organisations unable to bring in the team members and skillsets they need for even high-profile projects. That’s how tight the rules are.

It seems unfair that New Zealanders, who have access to a welfare system and are often not applying for available roles, gain a priority over those entering the country for work. Those entering workers will be paying taxes which will help to fund that welfare system, after all.

Is it time to boost Kiwi business beyond just pay-outs?

The real risk right now is that the New Zealand Government is going to keep the border sealed tight in the interest of protecting us from COVID – but in doing so, damage New Zealand on the economic front, because businesses simply cannot get the skills that they need.

Of course, this is the problem that a lot of international governments are currently grappling with too. Do you protect healthcare, or do you protect the economy?

The question in New Zealand is whether there needs to be some degree of realignment in terms of entry criteria – going back to what’s critical for businesses, as opposed to what’s critical by the government definition.

Businesses that are prosperous create employment. But if in order to prosper, you need a skillset that you cannot find in New Zealand, why does the border not facilitate entry to those skillsets you so desperately need?

If the government is serious about addressing the unemployment problem, it needs to reassess its current border control settings.  We’re simply not bringing enough workers through. And not having the skilled workers you need, means that you’re hampering businesses bouncing back post COVID-19.

Questions around capacity

We’ve been told the border control is due to capacity restrictions on managed isolation. But after 5 months, that excuse sounds weak, and it’s more likely that the government can’t manage it well enough to increase capacity.

As of 7 September 2020, total capacity in New Zealand for Managed Isolation Services was 7,357 – but actual occupancy was only 5,222 – leaving room for more overseas workers to be allowed in by Immigration New Zealand.

And while it was just announced that from early October, new categories will be open for some temporary work visa holders and partners of New Zealand citizens or residents based here – only those who are Australian citizens or citizens of visa waiver countries living outside of the country.

By estimation this rule change is only going to affect the equivalent of 870 visa holders. More needs to be done.

In the interest of the New Zealand economy bouncing back properly after COVID-19, it’s necessary to allow more skilled, essential and critical workers coming into the country from overseas.

If after 5 months the government can next to nothing for businesses who need access to skills and expertise unavailable in the New Zealand labour market, it begins to suggest that Judith Collins is right, and this government doesn’t have much of a plan beyond a wage subsidy.

For more news and information about Immigration follow our Blog for regular updates.

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