By Alex Tarrant
Bill English’s responses to questions about potential changes to new immigration policy floated just months ago indicate he and Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse are looking to row back particularly on a previous planned crack-down on lower-skilled migrants.
English was holding his cards close to his chest at Monday’s post-Cabinet press conference, encouraging journalists to “wait and see” how April’s proposals might be tweaked in the next few weeks after feedback from employers included what he said were some straightforward concerns.
Tweaks would ensure “real services” continue to be provided as the demand for skills in the construction, hospitality, horticulture, trucking and aged care industries heats up further, English said.
“These are real services that have to be provided…next week, the week after, next year. So, we do have to take into account those issues,” he said. “It’s a matter of making sure that we’ve got the people to do the work that has to be done. Like, you have to service the tourists, you have to build the houses, you have to look after the old people – there’s no choice about that.”
In April, Woodhouse announced the government was looking to impose a number of changes to how ‘skilled’ migrants would be able to enter and remain in the country. The headline policy was a $48,000 income threshold for a skilled migrant to receive employment points for their application if they were to enter a job in the top three skills levels here. A secondary policy meant anyone who was going to earn more than $73,000 would just be considered skilled regardless of what they did.
But there were also other changes relating to lower-skilled temporary workers. Employers would only be able to tap lower-skilled migrants for three years, with these people facing an annual review then being whacked with a two-year stand down period before they could reapply to come back into the country.
It was this policy which drew a large amount of condemnation from the industries above, particularly agriculture and horticulture. Indeed, Dairy NZ was quick on Monday to come out in support of National tweaking its immigration policy, even though we don’t know what the tweaks are yet.
Dairy NZ CEO Tim Mackle pointed out that while dairy farmers and farm managers were classed as level one on the skills ladder, farm assistants and herd managers were down at level five. This means they’d have to earn $73,000 a year to get in on a Skilled Migrant Visa.
For those who came in on the lower-skilled three-year visa, these workers were facing having to renew their visa every year, leave in three and not have their family enter the country with them, Mackle said. While Dairy NZ would like these workers to be classed higher up the skills chain to at least be in reaching distance of the $48,000 threshold, Mackle said the sector at least needed the ability to retain workers that had been trained up for specific roles Kiwis weren’t filling without them being turfed out after three years.
“Without being able to retain skilled migrant staff, dairy farms in several regions, especially Southland and Canterbury, will be severely impacted in terms of profitability. There’s the real likelihood that with fewer skilled, and consequently more unskilled staff on the ground farmers would also not be able to keep up their high standards of care for the environment they live and work in, or for such aspects as animal welfare and health and safety.”
And this seems to be the direction English and Woodhouse are heading in: “The outcome, it won’t be the one that you’re describing,” English said in answer to my questions at one point. I had been asking what was wrong with employers having to pay at least $48,000 to bring an ‘Essentially Skilled’ foreigner into the country. I got the feeling that side of things might not be the main focus of the tweaks.
Business getting the idea on training
Another theme also started to show through. Much of the criticism of New Zealand allowing lower-skilled migrants into the country is that, we must be able to train up the 90,000 youth not in education, employment or training (NEETs) to take on these jobs.
Had employers baulked at the costs of having to train locals rather than just being able to rely on bringing in cheap, foreign labour? No, English said. But businesses were starting to get the idea that they might want to take some responsibility for investing on creating a local workforce base.
“I must say, there’s been a good discussion over the last 12 or 18 months with a number of our industries, particularly horticulture, but hospitality coming to it as well, where they need to understand it’s not the government’s job to go and procure their workforce. It’s their job.”
“We’re having increasingly constructive discussions with these industries to make sure they don’t become reliant on government [immigration] policy to supply their workforce,” English said. Government was working with industries to make sure that they are adapting to the situation. “The point I’m making is, that they seem to me to be getting significantly more constructive about that.”