By Alex Tarrant
Labour will seek to use immigration settings to encourage foreign tradespeople into the country to build its 100,000 KiwiBuild homes while also boosting the supply of local apprentices.
Meanwhile, other measures in the party’s Election 2017 immigration policy are aimed at cutting the number of foreign workers and students issued work, study and post-study visas by 20,000-30,000 per year.
Labour Party leader Andrew Little said Monday it was “time for a breather on immigration.”
In the year to March, Immigration NZ issued a little over 226,000 work visas, while there were 82,000 student visas on issue at the start of April.
However, much of the political attention this year has centred around Stats NZ’s net migration figures showing annual net inflows of just over 70,000. The figures include New Zealanders and Australians who have free rights to work here.
Labour has attacked current migration settings as contributing to housing demand, traffic congestion, school overcrowding and pressure on other public services. It has also said not enough has been done to attract construction workers or train locals in the trades.
Construction firms will be exempt from applying the existing labour market test to bring in up to 1,500 foreign tradespeople at any one time if employers promise to take on a local apprentice for every migrant under a new ‘KiwiBuild Visa’ proposed by Labour.
Employers will be allowed to pay KiwiBuild Visa workers as little as the ‘living wage’ of about $20 an hour. The cost of each apprentice will be partially covered by Labour’s ‘Dole for Apprenticeships’ policy.
Meanwhile, a new ‘Exceptional Skills Visa’ will also allow an extra 1,000 people into the country without having to go through the full Skilled Migrant process if they can prove experience or qualifications above and beyond those required to plug a long-term skills gap.
The highlights of Labour’s policies designed to cut visa issuance include:
- No student visas will be issued for courses below a bachelor’s degree level, unless those courses have been assessed as ‘high quality’ by the TEC and NZQA.
- Any international students that are issued visas for courses below bachelor level will not be allowed to work while they study, unless the course has the ability to work approved as part of the course; International students studying at Bachelor level or higher will be permitted to work while studying.
- The one-year Post Study Work Visa – Open will be limited to those international students who have studied at Bachelor level or higher.
- A ‘regionalised’ system will ensure skilled immigrants work in the region a visa is issued for.
- For jobs not on skills shortage lists, visas will only be issued when a “genuine effort” has been made to find Kiwi workers, including more active enforcement of the labour market test to ensure employers have offered rates of pay and working conditions that are at least the market rate, and that they have plans in place to train locals.
- Skilled Migrant Category bonus points currently gained from having studied or worked in New Zealand will be removed.
- Age points will be standardised to 30 for any applicants under the age of 45.
Labour’s policy document shows changes are expected to result in 6,000 to 10,000 fewer visas being issued per year to international students in low level courses at Private Training Establishments (PTEs);
Changes to post-study settings are expected to reduce the number of these visas issued by 9,000 to 12,000 per year.
Changes to work visa settings are expected to reduce issuance by 5,000 to 8,000. All up, Labour says the changes are expected to result in about 20,000 to 30,000 fewer visas being issued per year.
Labour said that consequential reductions in family and partner visas "in the thousands" would also be expected as a result of the changes.
In the year to March, Immigration NZ issued 226,000 work visas, with 56,000 issued to people applying from offshore; the majority of applications were made by people already in the country.
In the categories targeted by Labour’s policy, about 21,000 student job search visas were issued to former international students in the year to March 2017.
Separate Immigration NZ figures show at the end of March/start of April, there were 22,217 visas on issue for students at Private Training Establishments.
And, of the 226,000 ‘work’ visas issued in the year to March, just over 38,000 of these were skilled work visas.
Other 'work' visa issuance in the year to March include: 74,700 Working Holiday Visas; 11,100 Recognised Seasonal Employment (RSE) visas; 37,000 relationship visas; 33,000 ‘other’ visas; 1500 foreign vessel shipping crew visas, 3,800 work-to-residence visas and 2,200 visas issued to people in the country illegally.
The policy from Labour follows tweaks made by the current National-led government in April, including proposed changes introducing a $48,000 wage floor for any migrants wishing to enter the country under the Skilled Migrant Category, and a $73,000 floor for those whose occupations are not on the skilled list.
‘Take a breather’
Announcing the policy, Labour Party leader Andrew Little said it was time for a breather on immigration.
The “moderate, sensible reforms” proposed would “reduce the pressure on our cities while ensuring we get the skilled workers our country needs,” he said.
“New Zealand is a country built on immigration. When new migrants come here, they enrich our country and make New Zealand a better place. We’ve always welcomed migrants to our country, and will continue to do do.”
But Little added that at 130,000, or the population of Tauranga, four times more people had arrived in New Zealand since 2013 than had been forecast.
“After nine years, National has failed to make the necessary investments in housing, infrastructure, and public services that are needed to cope with this rapid population growth. It’s contributed to the housing crisis, put pressure on hospitals and schools, and added to congestion on roads,” he said.
Immigration needed to be sustainable, he said. “We reviewed the system from top to bottom and found that several areas were being abused and not delivering the results Kiwis expect.”
Existing policies had created “a backdoor to residency via low-level study and low-skill work, he said. “These have had the perverse effect that a 23 year old with a New Zealand diploma and three years’ experience in retail can get more points towards residency than a 45 year old Oncologist who wants to migrate here.”
A third of international students studying at PTEs say they plan to work or seek residency here after study, Little said. “Closing off the ability to work during and after study for people who do low-level courses will stop backdoor immigration. We will end the culture of exploitation and corruption that’s grown up to prey on people using this route to come to New Zealand.”
However, Labour would seek to ensure employers got the skills needed, Little said, referencing improved regionalisation of skills shortages lists, the new ‘Exceptional Skills Visa’ and KiwiBuild Visa.
The three-year KiwiBuild Visa would seek to attract 1,000 to 1,500 tradespeople at a given time. These places are expected to be additional to construction work visas issued under existing rules, Labour said.
The new visa would allow employers to not have to apply the existing local Labour Market Test for work visas if they promised to take on a local apprentice at the same time, per migrant. Labour said its ‘Dole for Apprenticeships’ scheme would help cover some of the cost to employers taking on apprentices.
Employers tapping the KiwiBuild visa will be obliged to pay at least the ‘living wage’ to every migrant trade worker in the country under that category.
Meanwhile, up to 1,000 people every year will be able to come to New Zealand under a new ‘Exceptional Skills’ visa. The category will be available to people who can show they are on the long-term skills shortage list and have significant experience or qualifications beyond that required or are internationally renowned for their skills and talents.
Successful applicants will avoid the usual points system requirements for a Skilled Migrant Category visa, and would be allowed to bring their partner and children within the visa; the 1,000 setting includes partners and children.
Student visa cuts
Labour said it would stop issuing student visas for courses below a bachelor’s degree which are not independently assessed by the TEC and NZQQ as being of “high quality.” It will also limit the ability to work while studying to international students at bachelor level or higher, unless a course below that has the ability to work approved as part of that course.
MBIE would be involved in a process to determine whether courses offering qualifications below bachelor’s level would be suitable enough for student visa applications.
“In recent years there has been a substantial increase in low-level study and reports of sham courses being used as a route to work and eventual residency. Many stories have emerged of people being exploited both in their home countries and in New Zealand by people offering study as a backdoor to residency,” Labour says in its policy document.
“Making these changes is expected to reduce net migration by around 6,000 to 10,000 a year in returning the number of international students in low level courses at Private Training Establishments closer to their previous level,” it says.
Labour said it does not expect the plan to adversely impact universities, polytechnics or schools. “We estimate our plan to introduce three years free post-school education will see domestic enrolments grow 15%, reversing the projected decline under National,” it says.
Applications for the Post Study Work – Open visa will be limited to graduates who studied at bachelor’s level or higher. “Currently any international student who has completed a course long enough is able to apply for a one year work visa without having a job. This work visa and the prior qualification have become a loophole to gain a longer-term work visa and residency,” Labour says.
“As with the ability to work while studying, this avenue into work after study has fostered an industry of low-value courses that don’t deliver real education but serve as a backdoor route for immigration. It is damaging our international reputation and places pressure on our infrastructure. Labour’s proposed approach is a middle ground. It does not remove the visa entirely, as occurred in the UK in 2012.”
Regionalised shortages, labour market test
Labour said a new regionalised skilled visa system would “work with local councils, unions and business to determine where shortages exist.” It will require skilled immigrants to work in the region that their visa is issued for.
“This will prevent skills shortages in one region being used to justify work visas in another, while also making it easier for regions with specific needs to have those skills shortage[s] met.”
Labour said it would also develop training plans with industry training organisations in regions with shortages, “so that the need for skilled workers is met domestically in the long-term.”
Meanwhile, more active enforcement of the labour market test will ensure employers seeking migrant workers for occupations not on the skills shortage lists have to have offered locals at least market rates of pay and working conditions, and have plans in place for training locals.
Skilled Migrant Category and age bonus points will also be standardised. “Currently older, higher-skilled and experienced workers from overseas are at a disadvantage to recent graduates and temporary workers already in New Zealand. This change will ensure skilled migrants are chosen on the basis of the skills and experience they offer not where they have most recently lived.”
Update adds line that: 'Labour said that consequential reductions in family and partner visas "in the thousands" would also be expected as a result of the changes.'