13 Dec 2022

Immigration changes for nurses, teachers 'should have happened a year ago' - National

5:37 am on 13 December 2022
Labour MP Michael Wood

Immigration Minister Michael Wood acknowledged labour shortages were the biggest issue facing New Zealand businesses. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Too little, too late is the broad political consensus after the government changed up immigration settings to help fill critical sector shortages.

Scratching a political and economic itch, it has now included nurses, midwives and any specialist doctors not already eligible on the straight-to-residency Green List. They will be able to enter the country under the new setting from this Thursday, 15 December.

All teachers will be added to the work to residence pathway, along with drainlayers, motor mechanics and other roles, while bus and truck drivers will be eligible for a new temporary residence pathway.

The government has been managing immigration carefully since the borders reopened, arguing it was part of efforts to build a higher wage economy.

Immigration Minister Michael Wood acknowledging in this announcement "that labour shortages are the biggest issue facing New Zealand businesses, and are contributing to cost of living pressures too".

"We've said we have been prepared to make changes when the evidence supports the need to, and we will continue to monitor our settings to ensure they remain fit for purpose," he says.

Critics were baffled when nurses were left off the fast track Green List months ago, when the health sector was crying out for staff and nurses were reporting a workforce at the risk of collapse, overworked and burnt out.

National's Erica Stanford says the "major backdown" on giving migrant nurses a direct pathway to residence "should have happened a year ago".

Leaving them off in the first place was "nothing short of madness while New Zealand faced critical staff shortages across the health workforce".

Meanwhile, she asks, "how many nurses chose to go to Australia rather than New Zealand? After months of dithering, it is a relief that the government has finally realised its mistake".

"National welcomes the changes," says Stanford, "but there is no excuse for the delays that have only added strain to the already overwhelmed healthcare system."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern defends the time taken, particularly for the nurses, saying 4500 "internationally qualified nurses" have applied to the Nursing Council for registration this year.

"It demonstrates that we are attracting nurses, but there's global shortage. Let's get in front of things and continue to ensure that we're as competitive as we can be."

"Ultimately, we've heard the ask - make the message simpler; we've done that," she says.

The Greens are happy to see the latest changes, but are calling on the government "to offer equitable pathways to residency for workers" not covered by the announcement.

Green Party MP Ricardo Menéndez March

Green Party MP Ricardo Menéndez March Photo: Johnny Blades / VNP

MP Ricardo Menéndez March welcomes support for migrants stuck offshore, even if they have lived here for several years, with the issuing of Open Work Visas.

Another area of concern is where migrants "have had to remain bound to a single employer in order to access residency, which he says "enables exploitation".

Under these changes, there will be a window of opportunity for employers to sign up bus and truck drivers with the offer of residence in two years; the prospective employee would have work requirements, and employers would first have to sign up to industry agreed minimum pay rates and show they are actively looking to recruit and train locally.

Nurses and teachers will no longer be bound to a single employer but March says "many other workers still are and will be vulnerable to exploitation".

"All public transport users have felt the impacts and disruption of our bus driver shortage. We welcome the decision to develop a new residence pathway through a sector agreement to attract more drivers," he says.

"But for more reliable and frequent bus services, the government should be putting bus drivers on the Green List now."

ACT's James McDowall also welcomes the changes, but agrees it should have happened months ago, not "as a result of poor poll results".

"This is governing in slow motion. We are desperately short of nurses, bus services have stopped running and we don't have enough teachers.

"These should have all been green lit months ago," he says. ""Instead, the government has been carrying out a dangerous experiment where they've tried to increase wages by strangling the labour market."

National's Erica Stanford says even with the setting loosened, the numbers are still a "drop in the bucket" and won't fix the nationwide skills shortage.

"We need a policy that is attractive for migrants to want to come to New Zealand; a streamlined, efficient, quick process and all we've had is the exact opposite of that".

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