1 Apr 2020

'Unskilled workers' now keeping New Zealand going

7:06 pm on 1 April 2020

Sandeep Singh

It's time for New Zealand to shed its long accumulated collective hypocrisy of treating temporary migrant workers with contempt and disrespect.

Queues at Mt Wellington Countdown on the 28th of March

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

That's not to suggest that the majority of New Zealanders harbour some kind of racist hostility towards ethnic minority migrant communities. Indeed, New Zealand has a proud reputation of being a friendly, casual, progressive country that believes in a spirit of kindness and fairness towards everyone.

However, regardless of this collective sense of our selves, there is a dark underbelly of treating our ethnic migrant workers with contempt - especially the most visible migrant workforce in our supermarkets, petrol stations, aged care sector, security and food distribution.

Often, this underbelly gets exposed when anti-immigrant emotions flare-up - occasionally at a political level and more so when we head towards an election.

This collective disdain is crystallized in Immigration New Zealand's categorisation of these seemingly menial jobs as 'unskilled' which propels those vulnerable workers towards an unending cycle of migrant exploitation by some unscrupulous employers.

These 'unskilled' workers are first lured onshore with a bogus, and often non-existing, promise of residency pathways.

Depending on the political urgency to win elections, the contempt and disrespect towards these lowly-paid temporary migrant workers further escalates into full-blown attacks and accusations of being responsible for every infrastructure-deficit facing our towns and cities.

The Covid-19 pandemic lockdown has suddenly catapulted those previously 'less-essential', and hence less desirable workers, to the position of being frontline workers in the essential services needed to keep everyday New Zealanders' daily lives going during these unsettling times.

Recognising the critical role that these workers play in the smooth operation of our supermarkets and supply chains during complete lockdown, the Government has quietly on Monday 30 March, relaxed the visa restrictions on international students and work visa holders, so that our supermarkets do not face any major disruption.

Temporary workers have had to endure institutionalised contempt which is ingrained in the immigration system, where jobs such as departmental managers in supermarkets are deemed as unskilled and hence not worthy for permanent migration.

For many years now migrant workers on temporary visas have struggled to obtain residency working in jobs such as supermarkets, supply chains, truck driving, healthcare and security. Immigration New Zealand have insisted that they are unskilled and have told them that after three years they must leave, insisting that Kiwis should be doing their jobs.

However, the current Covid-19 pandemic has shown us that they are not less essential workers.

Is it not a quiet admission of the government's own hypocrisy?

For many ethnic migrant workers and their genuine, compassionate and progressive Kiwi friends, who have for years noted this selective prejudice, this might be an admission of the Government's hypocrisy towards our shelf-stackers and other frontline workers.

Governments have for years determined the desirability of new migrants by skill level, or by salary level, but in a crisis, we can now see who the real workers are providing value and essential skills to the country. What will their reward be for keeping us all fed and healthy? Will they be told that they are unskilled and stealing other people's jobs or will this crisis now show their value and benefit to the country that has not yet been previously recognised?

Immigration lawyer Alastair McClymont of McClymont Associates concurs:

"The current focus on essential workers actually begs the question 'who is skilled?' and 'what type of worker in NZ is in fact essential?' and 'how do we then encourage and reward those essential workers?'

"Government should give them a real pathway to residency. Reward them for their essential work, lay down conditions of what we expect of good citizens. Lay down requirements in terms of character and a contribution to society," Mr McClymont said.

It is time for the government to change Immigration New Zealand's attitude towards temporary workers working in sectors such as aged-care, supermarkets, distribution and security, who are repeatedly told that they are not essential, and so have to leave the country once they are done with the jobs of caring for our most vulnerable.

If a call to reward these temporary workers with a blanket residency might be an overstretch, then at least the Government needs to change the immigration system to regard these, now proven, essential jobs as essential for the purposes of immigration.

Sandeep Singh is the editor of Auckland-based Indian community newspaper The Indian Weekender.The views expressed are author's alone.