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OPINION: It is easy to pull the rug out from under thousands of migrant workers, but nobody ever tells you the carpet might just bounce back and hit you in the face.

The country is now overwhelmed by a wave of economic capacity issues most of which are linked in some way to severely reduced migration and border flows.

Which is why, after scrambling to let migrants know they are not welcome the Government is frantically moving in the opposite direction.

If you were a migrant and feeling angry about how things have gone since lockdown you might take a strange sort of comfort in the way inflation has spiked, job vacancy advertisements have soared, job re-training budgets have proven woefully inadequate to the task of retraining people, and employers have been unable to fill vacancies.

New Zealand Initiative chief economist Eric Crampton has long been a critic of the Government’s policies on immigration and understands why it did not move quicker to extend visas for a longer period of time in March, when everyone was predicting a 1930s-style economic depression.

The somewhat self-defeating part is how the Government did not change tack in August when it became clear the economy was roaring back.

“The Government at that point should have re-assessed and should have given everyone who was here legally in March a much longer-term visa,” he says.

“Another option that we could have been considering ... was just granting residency to everybody that we had done poorly by.”

Crampton says short-term visa extensions for migrants left them scrambling with no idea of what they might be allowed to do long-term.

Which made it harder for them to find jobs because employers were reluctant to take on people who, on paper, might have to leave the country in six months.

On Friday the Government reset its immigration reset from less than eight weeks prior. Although it insists the original reset is still happening (by that it means the second mention of the word ‘reset’ in this paragraph, in case you lost track).

Instead of booting low wage migrants out of the country, or trading them in for a wealthier “high value” breed, workers earning below median wage will now be eligible for two-year working visas.

These visas will still be linked to a single employer and the move will probably postpone uptake of the Government’s accredited employer work visa scheme too. Not a bad thing since some employers seem to think the new accreditation scheme will give them even more power over their migrant “meat”.

The Government tightened the screws on these workers last year when it started renewing their visas in short six- month increments at a time when they were at their most powerless.

What were they going to do? Back then no vaccine had been approved in the United States and flights were few and far between. Even if you caught one, any place worth flying to was probably still in lockdown. The only rational decision was to suck it up, live with the uncertainty, and await a new press release from the immigration minister (first Iain Lees-Galloway then Kris Faafoi) every few months.

It was a last-minute pattern repeated right across a host of visa types including for working holiday visa holders, and it was even worse for people with real aspirations to live here long-term.

The irony is the country seems to have gained nothing from having treated all these different types of migrant workers so badly.
Migrant Workers Association president Anu Kaloti says many migrant workers simply left for other countries as opportunities overseas came up.

“All the people who live in this land must be looked after equally well. So to pit migrants and New Zealanders against each other has been totally the wrong stance.”

The essential skills work visa numbers quoted in the Government’s press release hardly seem likely to topple the entire country into low wage subjugation, and it makes you wonder what the fuss was about.

This decision that many have been calling for will benefit just 18,000 work visa holders while a streamlined process attached to it will help 57,000.

So how about we flip this whole equation around. Rather than looking at this as a way to scare migrants with little to no benefit how about we think of it as an opportunity to sort these problems out with little cost to the economy.

Managed isolation statistics reveal we have been filling up fewer than 250 rooms a day in recent times, which puts us right back to where we were at the beginning of the pandemic in terms of economic constraints.

With such low numbers of people coming through the border it is debatable whether we still need a labour market test for migrant workers preventing them readily filling up workforce gaps.

The labour market test was meant for a time when globalisation was unconstrained and employers could more easily tap into migrant workers overseas. It is a headache to administer, which makes it a dubious priority with Immigration New Zealand’s resources so obviously stretched.

Then there are changes we could make for more permanent migrants. The Cabinet ramping up the planning range for residency applications would be a good start as would doing something with people who have put in expressions of interest for residency.

This would prevent us having to bring more workers through the border to plug the gap.

More importantly we could use this as an opportunity to tackle a major element in the immigration mess we have been reluctant to address.

The root cause of exploitation: visas attached to a single employer.

As Crampton says: “The best protection that workers can ever have in the first instance isn’t the whole set of labour market legislation that still has a lot of process costs on either side of it.”

“It’s having recourse to lots of potential employers who might prefer to bid you away from your current job.”

Source: Stuff, Dileepa Fonseka

COMMENT TNC: The question we should ask, is this something that would help the migrants, are their worries over, is all OK now? Definitely not! What about the large number of families still separated, what about the enormous backlog in EOI's, what about the endless delays in residence applications? Migrants are people we as a country have and will attract for a variety of reasons such as experience and skills while building NZ's human capital. They are not merely numbers as that appears to be the approach from this Government.

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