18 May 2021

'Scene setting' immigration speech labelled confusing by critics

11:07 am on 18 May 2021

Immigration is in for a shake-up but the details are still unclear with critics slating the government's latest message as confusing and worrying.

Government minister Stuart Nash

Minister for Economic Development Stuart Nash delivering a speech on immigration to business leaders in Auckland on Monday. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Minister for Economic Development Stuart Nash told business leaders the country must move away from its reliance on a low-skilled migrant labour force instead targeting high-skilled workers and wealthy investors.

Nash, filling in for Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi who was unwell, told the audience that Covid-19 presented a once in a life time opportunity to fix the country's over-reliance on migrant labour.

Those on temporary work visas make up 5 percent of the labour force - the highest share in the OECD and increasingly are lower skilled.

"This means businesses have been able to rely on lower-skilled labour and suppress wages rather than investing capital in productivity-enhancing plant and machinery, or employing and upskilling New Zealanders into work," he said.

He said temporary visas should only be for what are considered genuine skill shortages.

The Skilled Migrant Category will be reviewed, with details on what that might mean still to come.

There were no new announcements - the minister instead describing the speech as a "scene setter".

Infometrics senior economist Brad Olsen said the speech lacked any real detail.

"I came away from this speech just feeling simply confused, unsure of exactly what this speech was about, [but] more importantly from an economic and business perspective, unsure how this will change decision making.

"I think it will probably have prompted a lot more questions than answers for a number of businesses and industry leaders across the country," he said.

One of those with unanswered questions was Simon Wallace from the New Zealand Aged Care Association which represents rest homes.

About 55 percent of nurses in the sector are on some kind of visa.

He said the sector is short of between 300-500 nurses despite campaigns to employ New Zealanders and paying well above the minimum wage.

"My concern going forward is that we are just not going to have enough workers to fill the gaps that we can't replace by New Zealanders, no matter what efforts we go into to recruit them locally," he said.

Wallace said he did not want the flow of what he calls "mid-skilled" workers to stop and was waiting on more information from the government.

"We have a dependance on overseas workers, particularly from the Philippines and India, and it is really important that we have that pipeline continued," he said.

Green Party immigration spokesperson Ricardo Menéndez March was unhappy with the minister's comments.

"The government is signalling that they're not interested in supporting the many low wage migrants who have been critical in supporting our recovery to Covid-19, many who work in supermarkets, aged care industries and have been helping supporting our dairy and horticultural industries," he said.

Menéndez March said those migrant workers deserve certainty and a place in Aotearoa.

National Party immigration spokesperson Erica Stanford said businesses need certainty too.

"No matter where I go around the country everyone is talking about the labour shortage and how difficult it is.

"They are also talking about the staff, that they already have here in New Zealand, that cannot get residence because of the huge queues."

When asked about adding more resourcing to address the backlog, Nash said people would have to wait until the Budget on Thursday.

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