Friday, December 1, 2023

NZ’s work visa communication as clear as mud

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Immigration Minister Michael Wood hasn’t made life easy for work visa applicants.
Immigration Minister Michael Wood has just given highly skilled people yet another reason not to come to NZ and to go to Australia, where partners are automatically given open work visas, says an immigration expert.
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By Iain MacLeod, director of IMMagine New Zealand. 

After Cyclone Gabrielle smashed its way through New Zealand three weeks ago, many parts of the east coast of the North Island were covered in deep, silty mud. It’s everywhere. Covering properties. In houses. In the water system. In the rivers, streams and lakes. The cleanup is going to take months.  

This week, the government threw some mud of its own into the visa waters. 

Immigration minister Michael Wood is on record as calling for “easier”, “simpler” and “more transparent” visa rules. Yet virtually everything he announces adds complexity. 

In the middle of 2022, the government announced that, from December 2022, partners of work visa holders would no longer be entitled to an ‘open’ (no job required) work visa but would need to qualify based on finding their own job and jumping through the various hoops that their partner did. 

That went down like a bucket of cold sick for those who understand NZ needs to be globally competitive in terms of attracting migrants. 

The minister had just given highly skilled people yet another reason not to come to NZ and to go to Australia, where partners are automatically given open work visas. 

Buying time
In something of a backdown, in December 2022, the minister said that change was on hold and would be reviewed by April 2023. He wanted to get more advice from “stakeholders”. Translated: he needed to turn the temperature down on a misguided and counterproductive announcement. Kick for touch. Buy some time.  

This week, the minister has popped up again and announced that partners of Accredited Employer Work Visas will, from May 23, still be able to secure their own ‘open’ work visa and no job will be required if they can prove that they are in a genuine and stable relationship, akin to a marriage, which is likely to endure. 

However, this really is only a partial retreat. While partners will be entitled to their own open work visa, if they choose to get a job there are now two conditions that are going to be attached: 

1. When they do find work, the employer must be ‘accredited’ with Immigration NZ. 

2. If they choose to work, it must be at the median salary or higher – currently $29.66 an hour and indexed to inflation, meaning they must get a pay rise in line with inflation or they will be in breach of the condition of their visa. 

He giveth and he taketh away
This does align with the government’s intention to not give work rights to people who may not be overly skilled, irrespective of how badly they may be needed to fill labour shortages. In that respect, I give him credit for being consistent. 

However, there are still many people that will choose not to come to NZ if they think their partner won’t earn that much money but they might need some income to contribute to running the household. 

So what, some people might say? We don’t need people who are not highly skilled. If only that were true. With fruit rotting on the grounds of commercial orchards, restaurants and cafes not able to find waiting or kitchen staff, supermarkets not being able to find checkout staff, we most certainly do need these people. 

And how will this be policed given the work visa will be granted before there is any job in place? 

One must assume the visa itself will confirm the two conditions above. Will anybody at Immigration NZ ever check? Will it only check if the family decides to apply for residency? 

That would seem logical.  

It tends to suggest that partners/secondary applicants will have to demonstrate that any employer they worked for since the grant of their work visa is ‘accredited’ and one imagines they will have to present their bank statements and tax returns to show that whatever work they were doing, they were earning the median hourly rate based on the hours they were employed each week they held that visa. 

Each year, they will need to secure a pay rise indexed to inflation and if their income falls below that uncertain future hourly rate, again, they will be in breach of the conditions of their visa. 

Easier, simpler and more transparent? I don’t think so. 

More complex, harder to understand, less transparent for migrants
And if the Immigration Department, say at residency stage, decides that the partner did not meet those two conditions, what happens then? Without getting overly legal here, the only action that could be taken is for Immigration NZ to issue a deportation liability notice, and anyone who is covered by one of those cannot secure residency. It has serious potential repercussions if these rules aren’t followed. 

So, rather than making things more simple and transparent, Work Visa policy has now become so complicated it is hard to keep up. 

From May if you are the partner of a Work Visa holder who works in an occupation on the Green List, you do not need to earn the median salary. You are exempt. The same exemption applies if the primary applicant earns twice the national median salary. If your partner works in a sector that has its own income exemptions, you need to be mindful of those as well. Oh, and partners of NZ citizens or residents are not covered by these new rules either. The old rules apply to them. 

These changes also don’t apply to people with existing ‘open’ partner Work Visa but will, when they need to renew or extend. 

With me? 

The next time you read a press statement issued by Wood and he prefaces his statements with comments that whatever this week’s change to the rules is, it is designed to make things simpler, easier to understand and more transparent for migrants, their partners and the employers of NZ, you might be forgiven for thinking that it is, indeed, clear as mud. 

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