Migrant Workers Association criticises New Zealand work visa overhaul

9:58 am on 18 September 2019

A group representing migrant workers says the government's overhaul of work visas has failed to remove a clause that means they can be treated like modern day slaves.

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The Migrant Workers Association says the long-awaited changes are a disappointment and don't go far enough. Photo: 123RF

The government yesterday announced a new employer-led work visa it said would deal with labour shortages, reduce exploitation and improve conditions for New Zealand workers.

But the Migrant Workers Association said the long-awaited changes were a disappointment and didn't go far enough.

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Under the new system, six visa categories, including essentials skills and long skill shortages, will be replaced by one temporary work visa.

All employers will need to be accredited to recruit foreign workers and there will be thorough checks before the visa is issued.

Specific terms and conditions will be negotiated with sectors that are highly reliant on foreign workers, such as the aged care, dairy and construction sectors.

Employers will also be required to train and make their jobs appealing to New Zealand workers.

Migrant Workers Association spokesperson Anu Kaloti.

Anu Kaloti. Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

Anu Kaloti from the Migrant Workers Association said the changes would help everyone but foreign workers.

"It'll probably make the administration side of things easier for Immigration New Zealand to have this one type of visa, rather than six different ones. It sounds like it is going to help employers where there are shortages, especially in the regions."

The government has said the changes will ensure foreign workers are recruited only for genuine shortages, help reduce exploitation and will create better connections between immigration, education and welfare systems.

Ms Kaloti said it was likely workers would continue to be exploited as they would only be able to work for a single employer.

"If they wanted to attach a certain occupation, or a person's visa to a region, or to an industry sector, that still is manageable and workable. But attaching a person's visa to an employer is basically just modern day slavery."

Under the new system, lower-paid workers will be able to bring their families to New Zealand. That was the only positive change, Ms Kaloti said.

"We feel it's important for families to stay together, especially when they're trying to make a go of life in a very new environment, a new country, so it's important the families are not kept apart."

Mandeep Singh Bela from the Indian Workers Association said the changes left many migrant workers feeling uncertain about their future.

"A lot of them are currently either are already on existing one of the six categories, or some of them are thinking to apply for one of the six categories, so at the moment they are a bit confused about what's going to happen."

A migrant worker, who RNZ has agreed not to name, has been working in New Zealand for almost a decade.

He described the changes to work visas as confusing and said he was no better off.

"So I have been working all the time, so the requirements they will ask me to [apply for] residency or the skill shortage, by the time I reach that requirement Immigration changes its rules again."

'Upwards pressures on wages'

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway in RNZ's Auckland studio.

Iain Lees-Galloway Photo: RNZ

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway denies the visa changes will leave migrant workers vulnerable to being treated as modern-day slaves.

Lees-Galloway told Morning Report in the changes made "there's a lot specifically designed to prevent the exploitation of migrant workers".

He said the accreditation of employers upfront was designed to identify those employers "who we think are a risk of exploiting their workers, those who have a background maybe of not meeting their obligations on employment law".

If anyone felt like they were being exploited, they could always report it to Immigration to switch to a different employer, he said.

"We have got work underway, we've been consulting on changes designed specifically to eliminate migrant exploitation. We've been looking at how we can prevent exploitation, how we can protect those workers who are in exploitative situations, encourage them to come forward and also make sure how we can enforce the law."

If the new changes would increase migration levels he said: "We're not fixated on the numbers".

He said residency numbers peaked in 2016 and were now down by about 25,000. But, he said in a growing economy "of course there's going to be a demand for labour".

The changes aimed to better integrate the immigration, education and welfare systems, he said.

"There would be upwards pressures on wages as a result of these changes."

"We're not going to use the ANZSCO list to determine the skill level people are at. We are going to make differentiations in the immigration system based on what people are paid. There's a very strong incentive there for employers to look at paying their workers more."

In the regions, if an employer was paying more than $25/hr there would be no test. If it's below $25/hr there would be much stronger labour market tests than what currently exists.

In the cities, if an employer was paying more than double the median wage, there will be no labour market test.

He said there was no issue with New Zealanders getting skilled and paid at high levels.

"The issue is New Zealanders getting entry-level jobs."

He said the changes would put Kiwis in front of the queue.

The new visa would give employers more certainty and foreign workers more assurances about their conditions.

It will benefit up to 30,000 businesses by making it easier to employ foreign workers in the short term, he said.

The changes will be implemented gradually from next month and will be in place by 2021.

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