21 May 2021

Post-study work visa holders say they're suffering with closed borders

6:53 am on 21 May 2021

A couple stranded in Brazil are among the migrants overseas continuing to work for their New Zealand employers - despite time zone challenges that mean clocking off in the middle of the night.

Passengers arriving at Auckland Airport in January 2020 when public health staff began giving out coronavirus information.

The easing of border restrictions announced so far do not include post-study work visa holders (File image). Photo: RNZ / Liu Chen

A company director says the remote working brought on by border closures has been frustrating for him and for his engineer, who has been stuck in China since travel restrictions started there at the beginning of last year.

Janaina Wanderley has kept her job in marketing for an English language school in Auckland by working online from Sao Paulo, while her husband also works remotely in his job as a kitchen designer.

"I usually start working at 5pm Brazilian time so it's 8am in New Zealand," she said. "My husband goes until two in the morning working. So it's quite hard. The company values my position and experience, although the government doesn't care at all. However, they want my money through the taxes I'm still paying."

As for getting another job, she said bureaucratic demands in other countries were different from New Zealand - she could not even apply for work or government funds because all her belongings and documents remained in Auckland.

Janaina Wanderley and Arthur Rosa.

Janaina Wanderley and Arthur Rosa. Photo: Supplied

Auckland University engineering graduate Zhongxin Wang has been locked out for 16 months.

He works for Everest Surveyors/Hollier Greig, which has kept him on because of the key role he plays in a skills shortage area - but he does not fit the criteria to return to New Zealand as a critical worker.

The easing of border restrictions announced so far do not include post-study work visa holders - unless they meet other criteria such as a high salary or working on government-prioritised infrastructure.

"We are working on projects in a number of Kāinga Ora neighbourhoods but predominantly we do private sector work to deliver housing across Auckland," said Wang's company director, Albert Herron.

"I have kept him on all of this time as I expected at some point the government would change their position on this, however they do not seem to be moving on it. Being in engineering, there is a skill shortage and we have already invested heavily in Zhongxin's training - however now I am at a cross-roads and it is very frustrating."

Time zones were also a challenge, he said, with his engineer starting at 2pm New Zealand time.

Herron said he empathised with his civil engineer.

"He has a house here that he's renting and a car, got friends and his life has been here, having finished study here and having lived here for a year post-study, so I think it's pretty frustrating for him. I feel for him as he really does want to be here and it is really impacting on his professional development."

Wang and his partner, who has completed her Masters degree, had travelled to China to celebrate Chinese New Year with relatives.

Work challenges include accessing documents online from Beijing and not being able to visit sites, he said.

"I cannot go on-site to check what actually happened and I can only request my colleague to help me to take some photos, but sometimes the photos can't show everything so the start of the job is quite slow and quite hard."

Auckland University engineering graduate Zhongxin Wang has been locked out for 16 months.

Zhongxin Wang working for a New Zealand company from Beijing. Photo: Supplied

Graduates speak out

Figures from March this year show 5685 post-study visa holders were still overseas.

Many employers have had to let their graduate workers go - or have kept their job open, but they cannot work remotely. The income from the one to three years of post-graduate work was in many cases meant to pay for the migrants' studies.

"I have a bank loan for which I have to pay a monthly instalment of $1000," said one woman. "Also, I have no income for a year now. I still have my job in New Zealand. They are waiting for me to come and join them. I'm suffering mentally, physically and emotionally because of New Zealand.

"Me and my family are having a real terrible time. I have taken all my parents' savings to New Zealand to pursue higher education and now it's my responsibility to return them, but it's not possible from India to do so."

In a statement, Immigration New Zealand (INZ) said all individual requests for an exception to the border restrictions were considered against strict criteria.

"While Immigration New Zealand is empathetic to the situation some migrants find themselves in as a result of these border restrictions, INZ has no ability to apply discretion when considering requests for border exceptions," said border and visa operations general manager Nicola Hogg.

She confirmed Wang's application for an exemption in November under the "normally resident work visa holder" category was not successful because he held a post-study work visa. Only holders of three other temporary visas were eligible.

"Post-study work visas are just one immigration pathway, and former students with skills needed in New Zealand and a job offer may be eligible for other work visas once the border reopens.

"At this stage, we cannot provide any certainty on when current post-study work visa holders may be able to enter the country, and their current visa expiry remains in place."

For many migrants, that loss of time on their visa - and uncertainty about whether the government will extend their visas when the border re-opens - is adding to their pain.

"Neither the prime minister nor the minister of immigration has spoken about our [post-study] visas," said Janaina Wanderley, who had two humanitarian applications rejected.

"They included all work to residence visas but forgot to think about what they have sold to all of us in the past - invest your money in NZ education for at least a year and you'll be able to get one to three years of open work visa, which can help you with the residence process in the future. So we all did. I have already lost one year and three months of my visa, some lost their whole visa."

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