Our migrant workers deserve better

Opinion Piece: Aaron Martin, principal immigration lawyer for NZIL

For years ‘low-skilled workers’ (as they are classed by the immigration system) have been doing the jobs New Zealanders don’t want to do.

But as we have all discovered during the lockdown, ‘low-skilled’ does not mean ‘unimportant’.

Many low-skilled roles are crucial to the operation of the business in which they are performed. Imagine if we had no one to stack shelves; transport food and grocery items to the supermarket; or bathe our elderly, demented, and frail?

This group of hard-working people are essential to delivering us the very comfortable living standards we currently enjoy.

Our demand for this lifestyle has long outstripped our capacity to put local people into the roles that support our high standards.

We’ve sold our children dreams of careers in law, finance, IT, and engineering. This has created a vacuum of workers in aged care, hospitality, tourism, farming, horticulture, the transport sector – to name a few – and, until recently, the trades. New Zealanders (like many in Western, first-world economies) do not want to do these so called ‘low-skilled’ jobs.

The vacuum is compounded by a demographic issue: we don’t have enough children. This is because it’s damned hard to afford children on the wages paid in this country, especially the wages paid in low-skilled roles.

What will happen to migrants after the lockdown?

The economic consequences of COVID-19 and the lockdown are likely to be dire, and we will see a rise in unemployment that will exacerbate these issues.

When that happens, the hard-working migrants who helped us through the crisis will begin to feel the hard edge of the immigration process.

Those who are trying to renew their work visas will come up against the stand-down period.

This is a rule that says you can have three, 1-year work visas to work in ‘low-skilled’  positions, but then you must leave New Zealand, unless you can secure a work visa for a mid- or high-skilled role.

Or, migrants in the country will have their work visas declined because the employer cannot satisfy a labour market test to prove there are no New Zealanders available to perform the work being offered to the visa applicant. Some of these migrants will have their claim to residence undone as a consequence.

Here is where some Kiwis wash away any empathy previously expressed to this workforce.

They agree it is right for New Zealanders to be given the job first. That is what the labour market test in a work visa application is intended to achieve. That conviction tends to be stronger in times of high unemployment – rightly so.

The consequence on the other side of the equation, however, is not a scenario you would wish on your enemy.

The outcome for migrants

Imagine being in your late 20s or early 30s. You came here 5 years ago. Studied hard. Worked part-time in a ‘low-skilled’ job to fund your studies and living costs. Your role while ‘low-skilled’ was important for your employer’s business. You became part of a team that helped a New Zealand business survive, employ other Kiwis, and benefit the economy. You graduated. You got a work visa for several years to work in the same role full-time, or in a different role for another company, where you continued to render a service or produce goods that added to our collective wellbeing and comfortable lifestyle.

You got the work visas because the employer could not find Kiwis available to perform the work (and in some cases proved they didn’t want the work). You built a life here. You developed a social life, and a professional network. You are settled.

Then the New Zealand Government tells you: GO HOME!

There are people who can do your job. Not because they want to – they are forced too. We all know they’ll leave as soon as a better opportunity arises, but your life here is over.

How do you reconcile this conflict? Play the long game. Deal with the truths.

Low-skilled does not mean unimportant.

We don’t know how many New Zealanders will actually take up this work as unemployment rises. We don’t know how high unemployment will even get.

If you are an out-of-work mechanic, will you go and work in a supermarket or aged-care facility at less than half the rate of pay you got as a mechanic? Or will you hold out for opportunities to arise in your field?

As our economy gets going again and skill shortages return in these ‘low-skilled’ roles, do we really believe those we dumped in the tough times will come back and embrace us with open arms? Hardly.

We have increasing numbers of boomers getting benefits that are not means tested and we have fewer workers to pay for those benefits. And let’s be blunt: they will keep demanding that someone keeps paying. There will be no calls from them for voluntary pension reduction or means testing in the national interest.

Increasing numbers of our population need aged care and health services, and there are fewer people to deliver those services. Many locals just don’t want to do that work.

Migrants are not a burden on our infrastructure; this is an illusion. Most of these people have been here for years. They are not adding weight to systems that cannot cope.

For years, they have been driving our roads, using our health system, and placing their children in our schools. For years, they have been a valuable part of our community.

Besides, who under-invested in our infrastructure in the first place? (The answer begins with a B … see above.) It’s also worth noting that infrastructure has to be built and paid for by a working population, not a retired population.

Statistical analysis demonstrates that migrants cost this country the least in terms of draw on Government services. Migrants have demonstrated commitment to us. Where is our commitment to them?

We can all see the benefit right now of having hard-working people who want to contribute to our nation and our economy and are on our side, regardless of the ‘skill level’ of their job.

The Prime Minister’s comments about New Zealanders being told to leave Australia, equally apply to this part of our workforce. The question will be whether her approach is applied here or whether we see an element of hypocrisy in the official approach on immigration matters.


Aaron Martin is one of New Zealand’s most highly regarded and experienced immigration law practitioners.

Aaron’s early experience in handling applications has resulted in him developing considerable expertise dealing with complex cases requiring Ministerial intervention, character and medical waivers, or appeals.

Aaron’s many years of experience and reputation have resulted in him establishing an excellent working relationship with Immigration New Zealand.

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