Thousands of migrant workers stuck in visa limbo will soon have the chance to apply for fast-tracked residency.
The government has confirmed it is setting up a one-off resident visa, that could see about 110,000 people already in New Zealand apply.
Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi told Morning Report about 55,000 of their family members already here in New Zealand would be covered.
He said it's difficult to say how many family members are not already here and will come into the country under the scheme but gave a rough estimate of several thousand people.
The one-off 2021 Resident Visa includes over 5000 health and aged care workers, around 9000 primary industry workers, and more than 800 teachers.
Faafoi said some construction and manufacturing workers would also be eligible.
"We are providing a way forward for our migrant families who have been long disrupted by Covid-19, while ensuring businesses have the certainty they need to plan into the future and continue driving the economic recovery."
"The changes give migrants certainty about their future here, allowing them to continue putting down roots, and will help reunite many families who were separated by the border restrictions that prevent Covid-19 entering the community.
He said the government wanted to make sure it could process the applications in a timely manner.
"There's obviously been a fair degree of frustration about delays in the residency queues and I have had a focus on ensuring that Immigration New Zealand is very customer focused here."
He said the process will be streamlined and online rather than paper-based.
Expressions of interest from skilled migrants for residence visas have been paused since March last year.
Hundreds of doctors and nurses were caught up, with the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS) raising concerns of a "mass exodus" with Faafoi's office in June.
The 2021 Resident Visa would be available to most work-related visa holders, including Essential Skills, Work to Residence, and Post Study Work visas and their immediate family members.
The applicant must have been in New Zealand on September 29 2021 and must hold or have applied for (and subsequently be granted) a work visa.
They must also meet one of the following criteria:
- lived in New Zealand for three or more years, or
- earn above the median wage ($27 per hour or more), or
- work in a role on the Long Term Skill Shortage List, or
- hold occupational registration and work in the health or education sector, or
- work in personal care or other critical health worker roles, or
- work in a specified role in the primary industries.
The visa will also be available for those who entered New Zealand as critical workers for roles six months or longer until July 31 2022.
Partners and children could be included in the application and Faafoi said the majority of applications would be granted within a year of applications opening.
Faafoi said people who are already in the queue for a residence application will be prioritised when the applications for this visa open.
"Anyone who has put in an expression of interest, who have dependent children 17 years or over will also be prioritised in the first wave."
"This initiative addresses that immediate issue while work on the immigration rebalance looks longer term at preparing for the eventual reopening of New Zealand's borders.
"But our message to industries and employers remains clear; they need to look for ways to build resilient workforces and to attract, train and retain local workers and reduce their reliance on low-skilled migrant labour."
Federated Farmers immigration spokesperson Chris Lewis described the policy as a "sensible solution".
"There will be big smiles in cowsheds and tractors across the country after this announcement."
He said many migrant workers had been eyeing up opportunities overseas which had a greater chance of residency.
"We have been losing people to Australia and Canada. New Zealand farm employers know what a threat these countries and their initiatives are to retaining our experienced agricultural workforce."
Lewis said despite the news it remained imperative that the industry get access to more migrant workers.
"There remains a significant shortfall of agricultural workers in many regions."
Aged Care Association chief executive Simon Wallace told Morning Report of its 20,000-strong caregiver workforce, about a quarter are migrant workers and this would provide certainty.
The real challenge was getting enough nurses into the country because of difficulty getting spots in managed isolation, rather than an issue with visas.
There were around 5000 nurses across the 670 care homes, he said.
"This is a signficant announcement and will make a big difference to our workforce."
College of Intensive Care Medicine vice president Rob Bevan said few care intensive staff would be affected by the inital announcement, as the pressing issue was getting workers into the country, given there were 90 unfilled posts.
But the overall visa provision for 5000 health and aged-care workers was welcome, he said.
Applications for the 2021 Resident Visa would be rolled out in two phases.
From 1 December 2021, people who have submitted a Skilled Migrant Category (SMC) or Residence from Work application can apply, as well as those with dependent children 17 years or older who currently have an SMC expression of interest submitted.
From 1 March 2022, all other eligible applicants, including any others in the SMC expression of interest pool, can apply.