7 Aug 2020

Covid-19 border exemptions for workers 'as scarce as winning lottery tickets'

2:03 pm on 7 August 2020

A think tank wants the government to put border exemptions up for auction so companies can bid to bring in overseas executives and key workers.

One of the exits at the Auckland Airport Domestic Terminal.

(File image). Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

The New Zealand Initiative says the current application process is slow and ineffective and that the private sector can't get the people it needs into the country.

Its chairperson, Roger Partridge, told Morning Report border exemptions for critical workers had "become a bit of a lottery".

"We surveyed our members over the last week - they're the majority of the largest companies in New Zealand - and we found that border exemptions are as scarce as winning lottery tickets, and whether or not they get one seems to be a matter of chance."

As a result, there was "widespread concerns" about delays and interruptions to projects due to a lack of specialist workers that weren't available domestically, Partridge said.

He said he had heard stories of large projects being stalled, major plant commissioning being deferred and senior executives and their families "marooned overseas after resigning from their jobs to take up leadership positions in New Zealand".

"So there's a hand brake on the economy occurring because of the way the list-based critical worker exemption process is working."

While such critical workers could still argue their case to officials citing the need for them, Partridge argues that officials have no way of knowing which of those applying is the most critical.

"The government's priority list is dominated by the so-called shovel ready projects. The problem with that is that a list won't identify the roles that are most critical for getting the New Zealand economy back on its feet. All MBIE can do is list the projects it knows about - but not the ones it doesn't."

"Surely we should be prioritising projects that are already under way ... which have the highest prospect of keeping Kiwis in work."

Places could be set aside for government workers and humanitarian or family reunification needs.

"First and foremost, the government needs a strategy for massively scaling up managed isolation and quarantine capacity," he said. "And that way both ordinary New Zealanders will be able to reunite with their families and businesses will be able to get critical workers through.

"Short of that and until the capacity constraints are eased, a better method is needed of allocating the scarce border exemptions for critical workers than MBIE's list-based approach. And what we recommend is that MBIE run an auction, as it does for other scarce resources like radio spectrum.

"The auction process will reveal who has the highest need, and where the exemption will be most useful in the economy because the user with the highest need will be willing to pay the higher price - and that way we'll get an economically efficient outcome."

Through an auction system, the government would be assured that the bidder had the highest value use for the entry place, he said.

"You wouldn't want, for example, the Transmission Gully or the Auckland City Rail Link being held up because a business with a lower value use needed an employee and needed an exemption, that could be better used and of greater value to the economy if there was an auction system."

He said the auction system would not need any criteria, but instead come down to money.

"We'd be talking about those exemptions that the government has available for business, so we wouldn't be talking about taking border entry places away from returning Kiwis or places that are needed for the government's other social objectives."

He said he had no idea how much money a system like that would generate but suggested it could be run by MBIE and used to increase the capacity of managed isolation and quarantine facilities.

He believed an auction system for private sector workers would help manage "a scarce resource" until such time it is expanded.

He also echoed calls from former Prime Ministers Sir John Key and Helen Clark for private sector partnerships to significantly expand managed isolation.

As of 30 July, Immigration New Zealand had received 28,081 applications for border exceptions and of those 5763 resulted in an invitation to apply for a visa.

Individuals can apply more than once for exemption, so the border exception Expression of Interest requests received could include multiple requests from the same person.

By the end of last month, there were 4704 Critical Purpose requests approved.

Immigration NZ said if the exemptions expired people could apply again.

More than 200 film and TV production workers will also have arrived in the country by the end of the year with granted exemptions.

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