6 Nov 2020

Government urged to ease restrictions on temporary visas to address labour shortage

12:30 pm on 6 November 2020

The government is being urged to ease restrictions on temporary visas to ensure there are enough workers available to address an acute labour shortage in popular holiday destinations.

Staff wanted signs

Queenstown businesses have been working with the council to try and address a labour shortage in the town. Photo: RNZ / Nona Pelletier

The government recently eased restrictions to allow people on working holiday visas to extend their stay and work in horticultural and viticulture industries, but that did not include hospitality and construction work.

Independent economist Benje Patterson said more action was needed.

"We normally in Queenstown rely on migrant workers, and without that pipeline of migrant workers coming through, there's just simply not enough people to do the jobs.

"It's not only about easing restrictions so that people can stay longer, but it's also about making it more permissible for them to work in industries that [their visa] was not necessarily originally designed for," he said.

A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi said he was aware of the situation and had been getting regular updates, but no decision had been made and there was no timeline on when one might be made.

While Queenstown's international tourism had dried up, it was seeing a strong increase in domestic tourism and construction activity, which was expected to continue through the summer.

Labour market data for the Queenstown Lakes District produced by the economic agency Infometrics put its unemployment rate at 1.4 percent in the June quarter, compared with 4.6 percent for the wider Otago region.

The unemployment rate was expected to have risen slightly in the September quarter in line with an increase in the broader Otago region, although that breakdown was not yet available.

Remarkable Labour chief executive Blair McNaughton said there were lots of jobs available in Queenstown across all industries, which were proving to be impossible to fill from the resident population of about 30,000.

He said highly paid registered builders were having to unload trucks themselves because there were not enough labourers, while hotel operators were considering closing down for a couple of days each week in order to give their staff days off.

"We've done everything possible really. We've stepped up our advertising across the country on all platforms.

"We're now going door-to-door to all the backpackers in the region, to see if there's anybody in there that wants to work. We're doing letterbox drops to all the houses around Queenstown. We're using things such as refer a friend techniques, where people can refer people to us and then they get rewarded with vouchers and things. So, anything we can possibly do to find staff," McNaughton said.

He said Queenstown businesses were working with the local council, organisations and politicians to try to address the issue with central government.

"We're all working together because everybody's now realising that this is a dire situation that's only going to get a lot worse before it gets any better."

Patterson said the easiest way to fill the positions was to make better use of the migrant population still in the country, particularly those with in-demand skills.

"It's not just Queenstown. There are many other parts of New Zealand, that have a lot of tourism during the summer season that rely on migrant workers that will struggle."

McNaughton said Queenstown would welcome a visit from Faafoi, who could see first hand how the labour shortages were affecting the town's economic outlook.

He said the issue needed urgent attention as the peak holiday season was just weeks away.

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