12 Aug 2016

The political risks of soaring immigration

8:54 am on 12 August 2016

Power Play - Immigration numbers are at record levels, but new arrivals put stresses on the nation, and that can cause dangerous resentments.

Auckland Airport arrivals

The Auckland Chamber of Commerce said 800 new people settling in Auckland each week. (file photo) Photo: 123RF

Net migration hit a record high in the year to April, with a net increase of 68,000 and the numbers keep rolling in.

A quarter of those were New Zealanders returning home, with India, China, the Philippines and the United Kingdom the countries contributing the largest numbers.

The pressure of this influx is being felt most in Auckland, not just with housing but other infrastructure such as transport.

The latest figures show another record high - this time in approvals for temporary work visas, and a near record high for new residents.

According to the Auckland Chamber of Commerce the numbers translate into 800 new people settling in Auckland each week.

There is also strong growth in student visas, along with the temporary work visas and residence numbers.

In 2014 there were just over 13,000 residence visas - that rose to just over 15,000 in 2016. Student visas went from 18,000 to 27,500 over the same period, with work visas going up from 31,000 to 39,000.

People from China account for the largest increase in residence visas, and those from the United Kingdom for work visas.

However, there has been political heat over why New Zealand needs to bring in so many people, when there is a 5.7 percent unemployment rate.

New Zealand First deputy leader Ron Mark says the government has failed to train the many thousands of unemployed to do these jobs, which has led to an open door immigration policy.

"The government has to turn the tap off or down, but they've created a mess they have no way out of.

"We now have an acute shortage of tradespeople through failed trade training and coupled to that you have a housing crisis ramped up by rampant immigration, it's chicken and egg.

"You can't bring in more and more people and not accept you're going to generate more stress on infrastructure and more need for building," Mr Mark said on Wednesday.

There are several dimensions to immigration, and the main one highlighted by the government is many of those contributing to increased population are New Zealanders either deciding to stay in New Zealand, or returning home from overseas.

Statistics New Zealand says there has been a reversal in the past trend, but overall there are still more New Zealand citizens leaving, than arriving.

But it notes the net loss has shrunk significantly from 39,700 in 2012, to 3,500 in 2016.

The government argues the number of work visas is needed to fill skill shortages; particularly in construction.

However, the figures for the year to June show the main occupations listed for people arriving on work visas were hospitality, the food trade and engineering.

Another reason the government gives for the record number of work visas being issued, is that unemployed New Zealanders are not living where there are skills shortages, and are not willing to move to those places.

Pacific Islands workers have been described as invaluable to New Zealand's horticulture and viticulture industries.

Pacific Islands workers have been described as invaluable to New Zealand's horticulture and viticulture industries. Photo: RNZI / Johnny Blades

In these cases the government heeds the calls from business and allows immigrants to fill those gaps. Horticulture is an example, where the work can also be seasonal.

But opposition parties question whether the pros outweigh the cons; more people means more pressure on the housing market, and downward pressure on the labour market if people from other countries are more willing to accept lower pay and conditions.

One step further is the exploitation of migrant workers, demonstrated through several Employment Relations Authority rulings showing people being paid poorly, and forcing them to work under conditions falling well short of New Zealand law.

But more generally, while there has been job growth, wage growth remains sluggish, which exacerbates the housing affordability problem, with house prices racing away and worsening the earnings versus cost of mortgage gap.

A vigil at Parliament calling for New Zealand to double its refugee quota.

A vigil at Parliament in September last year calling for New Zealand to double its refugee quota. Photo: RNZ / Benedict Collins

There is not tangible hostility to immigration in New Zealand, in fact public support for increasing the refugee quota resulted in the annual number being lifted sooner than was planned by the government.

But stress and feelings of injustice and resentment create a breeding ground for a blame culture, as happened in Britain, in the United States and as is starting to fester in Australia.

It is not fair to single out any one group - whether it be by nationality, or immigrants as a whole - as several, complex factors are driving the economy, people's jobs and people's well-being.

But as politicians around the world have discovered, if voters just look at the headlines and believe the rhetoric, that can then precipitate profound changes, that can not easily be undone.

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