7 May 2020

Epidemic Response Committee discusses immigration

5:11 pm on 7 May 2020

The Epidemic Response Committee is continuing this afternoon to examine the government's Immigration Amendment bill.

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Earlier today the commitee heard how the sport sector was impacted by Covid-19 and the ongoing concerns the industry has.

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The Committee chaired by opposition leader Simon Bridges is hearing submissions on the bill which for 12 months would give the government broad powers to make changes to visas.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway has said the legislation is needed to allow the government to respond quickly to provide solutions on visas during the Covid-19 pandemic.

'Most face serious difficulties'

New Zealand Association for Migration & Investment director Peter Moses was the first submitter, and told the ERC his organisation supported the proposed amendments to the Immigration Amendment Bill, but that additional safeguards were necessary.

He said there are about 350,000 temporary visa holders in New Zealand, of which about 75,000 of those are student visa holders and a little more than 200,000 are work visa holders.

Moses said this would affect roughly 50,000 businesses that employ the migrant workers and these businesses also required urgent requirements to their immigration status.

"As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, many if not most face serious difficulties."

He said they may have lost jobs, working in different roles or reduced hours per their employment agreement.

"Their income will have reduced and all of this would be outside their control, yet therefore these visa holders may be in breach of their visa conditions."

Immigration New Zealand is unable to provide the necessary solutions for these people with the required speed, he said.

That's because of the three reasons - the decision making process, that immigration staff aren't able to work in their usual offices, and because Immigration NZ was already facing significant backlogs before the lockdown began.

It's in this context that a bold solution was needed, Moses said.

'A real and significant difference'

Horticulture New Zealand chief executive Mike Chapman told the ERC his organisation welcomed the changes.

"These powers will make a real and significant difference to our ability to achieve what is required," he said.

"The fee waiver provision is important because we are moving workers between a lot of employers and we're pleased to say that Immigration New Zealand is moving towards a more electronic system, and by going to a more electronic system it doesn't need to have that very cumbersome paper system."

Chapman said that his key recommendation would be changes to Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) visas to allow seasonal workers to work in New Zealand for the upcoming seasons. He said how the industry recovered will be vital to its future success and RSE visas will play a crucial role in that.

He said the breakdown of workers in the Horticulture industry are one third Pasifika staff, one third New Zealanders, and one third backpackers. He said with the borders closed that will mean that the split will now be one third Pasifika and two thirds New Zealanders.

A matter of law

Debra Angus from the NZ Law Society said they had noticed some high level issues involved in the Amendment.

"The main issue the Law Society wishes to raise is the proposal to allow the Minister for Immigration to exercise by special direction quite broad powers that apply to classes of individuals.. In a limited way, it is already provided for in section 378 (of the Bill) in terms of temporary visa waivers and temporary classifications. However, this proposal will allow (a) much wider range of directions to be issued and it's really very far reaching."

Auckland District Law Society spokesperson Deborah Manning said that the way the amendment reads meant migrants may find that their rights are being deprived.

She said there needed to be safeguards in the legislation, by way of creating a purposes section within the Bill, that won't allow that to happen.

"If the purpose of the Bill is to not deprive people of their rights, to look after the welfare of migrants as well as dealing with people as classes for practical and pragmatic reasons, then the Bill needs to say that," she said.

She said Parliament had smart enough lawyers to do that and it would only take them half an hour to write up a purposes section within the Bill.

Background on the bill

Immigrants have expressed frustration at not getting answers to their urgent visa queries, and at how few immigration employees have been working.

Lawyers have warned that Immigration NZ is in disarray with 1000 staff unable to work remotely because of a lack of technology, and say the bill is an "ambulance at the bottom of the cliff" solution needed to shore up the agency's failings.

They have warned it offers the government "unbridled power" over immigration laws and needs proper checks and balances.

Meanwhile, the lack of migrant workers is worrying the dairy industry and the horticultural industry, which warned of a possible food shortage if the labour shortage continues through to harvest.

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