18 May 2021

Government faces backlash over immigration plan as it defends 'reset'

6:27 pm on 18 May 2021

Migrants have hit back at the government's immigration reset, saying it uses them as a "scapegoat" for problems with housing, infrastructure and worker welfare.

Residence visa application form

File image. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

The government has signalled cuts to the number of incoming temporary migrants and a focus on attracting more highly-skilled workers and wealthy investors.

However, it is being asked to look at the "humanitarian crisis" unfolding on its doorstep instead, among those enduring lengthy waits for residency.

One aged care worker who came to New Zealand from South Africa in 2018 said she had been in the queue for a year.

The woman, who asked not to be named, said she worked hard to look after 90-year-olds every day, while her daughter had just fallen in love.

She begged the government not to pull the rug out from under them.

"We sold everything for a dream and we moved to New Zealand with our eyes wide open. Canada is calling for immigrants. France is offering its essential workers, who worked during the pandemic, residency. But all of a sudden, we've gone from essential workers to low-skilled workers overnight," she said.

"We wonder if we made the biggest mistake of our lives, and we question every day - how is this government being kind to migrants?"

It's not just migrants in low-and-mid skill categories struggling to make sense of the immigration speech, but those in the category the government wants to attract.

Aeron Davis and his partner moved from London to New Zealand at the start of last year to work highly-skilled professions.

He's a Professor of Political Communication at Victoria University and she's a GP on the Kāpiti Coast, where there is a shortage of doctors.

The Expressions of Interest residency pool which they had planned to apply for has been closed since last March - and he feared it would take years to get permanent residency.

In the meantime, his two teenage children could not get jobs and could not go to university without paying international fees, Davis said.

"That's our great concern. Our teenagers have struggled coming over. They've struggled adapting to a new country. There's lots of things they like about New Zealand and they'd like to stay but the idea of them being at home for years at a time would probably force us to go home."

Davis feared thousands of other families were in the same situation - waiting in limbo with less employment rights, less health benefits, and less security.

"I think there's a general lack of trust among the migrant population about what the government said and what it's going to do. So even if you are a highly skilled immigrant and have a job and contribute, we're unsure whether the government will ever process visas."

In justifying an immigration shake up, Tourism Minister Stuart Nash - standing in for Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi - told business leaders some sectors were relying on or exploiting low-paid workers, while pressure on housing and infrastructure showed a need to get ahead of population growth.

Temporary visas should only be considered for genuine skill shortages, and the Skilled Migrant Category would be reviewed, he said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said New Zealand would not be "turning off the tap" for low-skilled migrants.

However, it was important to look at the population growth and consider whether it was serving both migrants and New Zealanders, she said.

"For those migrants who are coming to call New Zealand home - are we giving them the best offering possible? And at scale, with the number of temporary workers New Zealand is accessing at the moment, is that best for wages and New Zealand's economy?"

Migrant Workers Association spokesperson Anu Kaloti used the words "shocking" and "absurd" to describe the immigration reset.

She agreed that migrants were exploited and paid lower wages, but said what needed to change was not the number of migrants - rather the rules which bound them to a single employer in order to be sponsored.

Kaloti believed the government was unfairly blaming migrant workers for housing and infrastructure issues that stemmed from years of under-investment from both sides of the political spectrum.

"Blaming migrants for the housing crisis, for infrastructure problems, for transport [problems] - that is plain migrant scapegoating," she said.

The prime minister has pledged to work with sectors which rely on migrant workers to offset any labour shortages.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs