Staff-short regional industries are unlikely to benefit from the Government’s soon to be announced immigration rebalance.
Observers say changes to immigration policy, which the Government says will address what claims is a low-wage, low-productivity model, are designed not to add to urban housing shortages and roading congestion in key population areas rather than alleviate regional labour shortages.
Immigration lawyer Ben De’Ath said briefings and documentation he has viewed show the immigration rebalance has aims other than to reset the country’s migrant settings.
“The rebalance lacks any geographical or industry focus and given the primary driver is remuneration based, there has not been the necessary diligence around what industries and geographical areas that have a shortage of human capacity and why,” De’Ath said.
Migrants heading to work in the regions will have no impact on housing shortages or the road congestion, he said.
National Party immigration spokesperson Erica Stanford understands employers willing to pay migrants 1.5 or twice the median wage will be able to offer a pathway to residency.
Those unable or unwilling to pay those wages, will have to be part of Government-approved sector agreements, which Stanford believes there will be few transport, dairy and healthcare among them.
“The reset is aimed at severely restricting the number of migrants that can come into NZ and also centralising decisions about who decides who can come in,” Stanford said.
It will also enable the Government to pick the sectors to which it will grant exemptions and control how many migrants they will allow.
Stanford believes the Government views as a success the increase in wages over the last two years due to the absence of significant migration.
“What they don’t see is the pain of employers unable to get staff, the poaching of workers at inflated wage rates and having to pay high wages to relatively unskilled workers,” she said.
She said NZ’s reputation as a destination for skilled workers has been tarnished by processing delays to residency claims, an inability to have family join migrants and travel restrictions due to covid preventing visits to offshore families.
“Highly skilled migrants will go elsewhere,” she warned.
De’Ath, who has worked extensively with primary sector immigration, agrees, saying in contrast to NZ, Australia is offering migrant workers who live and work in centres outside the main cities a four-year pathway to residency.
By using the blunt tool of remuneration to drive immigration policy, De’Ath said migrants will continue to be attracted to NZ’s main centres.
Despite training, recruitment programmes and higher wages, sectors such as aged care and dairy in regional areas are still unable to fill gaps in their labour forces, which shows those workers are simply not there.
“It is going to make urban issues a greater problem and not dent rural problems – people in aged care facilities, trucks not driven and cows not milked,” De’Ath said.
Tightening immigration is also at odds with the Government’s wider aims of doubling exports, which still require lower skilled workers.
Under the policy changes they will be harder to access.
Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi said in a statement that the policy “is part of a transition away from a low-wage, low-productivity economic model”.
The closure of the border due to the pandemic has provided an opportunity to target immigration policy to attract more highly skilled workers.
“In doing so, the Government is aiming to lift working conditions for everyone, to improve career pathways for New Zealanders and to increase businesses’ productivity and resilience as part of the economic recovery,” Faafoi said.