14 Sep 2020

Overseas immigration employees on full pay, New Zealand staff struggle with tech

11:36 am on 14 September 2020

Staff at overseas government offices who have been off work during lockdown have remained on full pay - at an estimated cost of $7 million.

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Photo: 123RF

And more than 3000 staff at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) were still using Windows 7 systems, causing delays to working from home.

Immigration New Zealand (INZ), a business unit of MBIE, said 427 overseas staff had been kept on, but for security reasons they did not have the option to work from home.

INZ Beijing office, whose staff decide around 10,000 visa applications every week, has been closed since Chinese New Year on 24 January.

Based on salary figures released to RNZ last year, the cost of keeping staff on full pay there has so far cost about $5m.

The Mumbai office remains closed and its salary bill is $2m. Costs for INZ offices in the Philippines, which remains closed, and in Samoa, which re-opened last month, are not known.

'Shocking' offshore case officers on full pay, unable to do anything for nine months

Immigration adviser Katy Armstrong said the public would be shocked to know how much money had been spent on wages, and about the lack of online capability.

She said immigrants trying to change employer through a variation of conditions were waiting almost two months before their application was looked at by a case officer.

"In the context of an environment where so much of immigration is completely on hold, one would think naturally that those things that are still able to be processed would be processed with fairly lightning speed. But actually, you know, [for] a simple variation of conditions of work there's a 50-day wait, that's absolutely shocking to any practitioner.

"To have to wait 50 days just to be allocated when you've got two major branches, with fully trained case officers, sitting there on full pay, unable to make any decisions - that really does raise alarm bells.

"We've seen since the numbers of applications has been going down we've got this kind of concentric reducing circle of activity within Immigration New Zealand, the queues almost seem to have got worse in some areas.

"It's really shocking to think that a whole slew of offshore case officers have been on full pay, unable to do anything for nine months."

INZ said it had reviewed each offshore office's situation monthly since the pandemic began.

Seconded New Zealand staff had now returned to China to complete their quarantine requirements and prepare the Beijing office for reopening.

"We expect to be able to reopen the Beijing office in mid-September at the earliest," Border and Visa Operations acting general manager Steve McGill said.

"The health and safety of our staff continue to be a primary consideration in any decision to reopen an offshore office. Currently, all INZ's offshore offices remain closed, with the exception of our Apia office which opened last month.

"INZ's offshore staff have continued to be paid while the offices have been closed. This has helped to maintain locally engaged staff in places like Beijing to ensure that now the office is in a position to be reopened, we have the processing capacity and capability required, particularly for when border restrictions are lifted and processing of offshore applications resumes."

Outdated IT stalled lockdown work

In response to an Official Information Act (OIA) request, MBIE said it could not say how many Immigration New Zealand staff it had working at level 4.

Initial planning for Covid-19 at the end of January was based on a quarter of the workforce needing to work from home.

"MBIE staff who were classed as 'essential' were able to access MBIE systems at all times and there were no limitations," the ministry said in its OIA response, stating others could only access the system outside business hours until more licences were purchased at Easter.

It accelerated a roll-out of Windows 10 and bought 700 new machines which operated on Direct Access, as well as an extra 7000 remote licences, such as VPN and Citrix.

But 3222 employees were still using Windows 7, an operating system that was released in 2009 and for which Microsoft no longer provides product support.

Armstrong said the ministry withheld information under the OIA on the cost of the overseas INZ office closures.

"We've been told that over the last couple of years multimillion dollars have been invested into upgrading of systems and bringing applications online," she said.

"There's been a lot of PR around that and then when crunch time came, my goodness it was as if there was literally no capability. Such a limited online capability.

"It was shocking, as practitioners, we were well ahead of the game in terms of our ability and they've had years to prepare and have business continuity plans."

INZ said it received 39,000 visa applications in July and 32,500 in August, as well as 35,000 requests for a border exception since the end of March.

Those requests and subsequent visa applications were being processed by its Henderson office whose workload had been transferred to other offices.

"This has impacted the processing timeframes of Variation of Conditions (VoC) applications as there was an initial period of getting immigration officers in the Christchurch office up to speed with processing this type of application," McGill said.

"VoC applications are also paper based applications which means these were unable to be processed during lockdown earlier in the year. This has also impacted the processing timeframes as there was a backlog of applications that needed allocating when the Christchurch office picked up this visa product."

It had allocated more officers to those visas, but changes to the labour market had prompted an increase in VoC applications of more than 1000 compared to the same three months last year.

"INZ has business continuity plans in place for an event such as an office closure which may occur for any number of reasons," he said.

All INZ onshore staff worked from home wherever practicable through Covid-19 alert levels 4 and 3, unless they were required to be on-site as an essential worker or were on leave."

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