Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway announced a six-month extension of migrant workers’ visas and a reduction of the stand-down period from 12 to six months for low-skilled workers who were due to leave this year.
Those employed in the dairy industry make up the largest component of both categories.
The extension will affect an estimated 16,500 workers whose visas were due to expire by the end of the year. It allows them to stay beyond calving and into peak milking. Of the estimated 600 workers affected by the stand-down period, 113 work in the dairy industry.
The extension is excellent news for farmers and the estimated 3000 dairy farm employees whose temporary visas are due to expire, DairyNZ people team leader Jane Muir said.
“The dairy sector, farm employers and our farm employees on temporary visas have been calling on the Government to provide a solution. We are pleased they have listened,” she said.
“We are about to go into the busiest time of the farming year with calving and urgently sought certainty that farmers would be able to keep their existing staff.”
Lees-Galloway also made changes to help stranded Recognised Seasonal Employer workers.
They will now be able to work a minimum of 15 hours a week part time with no limit on roles they can do but they will need an employment agreement with an RSE employer, who will need to continue to honour commitments under the RSE scheme.
Each year up to 14,400 workers, mainly from Pacific Island nations, fill seasonal labour shortages in horticulture and viticulture.
“Around 9000 seasonal workers are still in New Zealand, a number of them stranded with no flights home and no way to support themselves after the harvest season has ended. The Government is supporting Pacific Island governments to repatriate their citizens but many are expected to remain in NZ for some time,” Lees-Galloway said.
“RSE visas limit workers to specific work, which is now drying up despite the Government already supporting workers to move to new RSE employers unable to bring in migrant workers as the borders are closed.”
He expects more New Zealanders to be available for work next season as unemployment levels rise. For that reason, the Government kept the RSE scheme annual cap at 14,400 for the next year.
“This is not what we originally announced and planned but we anticipate that more New Zealanders will be available to do this work next year so we could not justify another increase of the cap as we originally planned.
“I want to give employers in the horticulture and viticulture industries as much certainty as possible in uncertain times so I have taken the decision now, even though next season’s workers will be able to enter NZ only when it is safe to relax border restrictions,” Lees-Galloway said.
Horticulture NZ chief executive Mike Chapman said while he welcomes the move it should have happened earlier.
“We really needed these Government decisions three months ago.
“While local communities have rallied to support RSE workers Government delays have caused RSE workers and their employers unnecessary anxiety and cost.”
The decision means the workers who have been stranded will not have the extra time they have spent in the country count against them when they return to NZ next season.
Out of the 9000 RSE workers still in NZ 4000 are waiting to get home and horticulture industry groups are working with the Government to find a way of getting them home safely and as quickly as possible, he said.