Coronavirus: Proposal to auction border exemptions to highest bidder condemned

A proposal to start a bidding war between local businesses for skilled workers has been condemned as "ludicrous".

Public policy think-tank the New Zealand Initiative (NZI) has called for the Government to auction off border exemptions to the highest bidder, allowing overseas executives and key workers to take up critical roles in local businesses.  

Speaking to RNZ's Morning Report podcast on Friday, NZI chairperson Robert Partridge said the current exemption process is slow and ineffective, meaning "large projects across the country are stalling". A survey of NZI's members over the last week - "the majority of the largest companies in New Zealand" - found border exemptions "are as scarce as a winning lottery ticket".

"There's a handbrake on the economy because of the way the list-based critical worker exemption process is working," Partridge told Morning Report. 

New Zealand Association of Migration and Investment Association (NZAMI) chair June Ranson told Newshub that the proposal unfairly favours big business with cash to splash, leaving behind smaller, developing companies who are also in genuine need of skilled professionals.

She argues that skilled workers are needed across every sector - and an auction only recognises the biggest cheque book.

"[Businesses] desperately need these workers, but what [NZI is] proposing will do away with the small- to medium-sized businesses and aims at the big corporations," Ranson told Newshub.

Ranson agrees that allowing in the right workers will benefit the country's economy, as it's likely their experience and expertise will create more job opportunities for New Zealanders. She also noted their knowledge is essential for "upskilling" New Zealand's workforce.

"Not all the skills are here. By the right expertise coming in, they're passing on those skills," she said.

"A number of employers are not able to bring in key people for their workforce - this includes highly skilled people that are needed for companies to be able to keep their businesses going, growing and able to employ New Zealanders."

Yet to auction off border exemptions to the highest bidder is a "ludicrous" proposal, she says.

"To bring these people in, coming up with the suggestion of having an auction, to say, 'these people are more important because I can put up extra money', is absolutely naive... it's just ludicrous."

According to NZAMI, there are 21,721 people holding skilled worker temporary visas who have been trapped overseas amid the ongoing pandemic, many of whom were about to depart to New Zealand before COVID-19 hit. 

"We have people that have been trapped offshore by no fault of their own, with half their family in New Zealand and employment in this country, but have not been able to get [here] because the border is shut, [while] their employer in this country is saying, 'I need my workers'," Ranson explained.

"There's a lot of stress on those people with their lives established here - they have homes and jobs here, they're paying rent, their family is separated - they're living overseas with nothing there, waiting to be able to get in. These people have given so much, and should be able to come back."

NZAMI said a fair system needs to be implemented.

"We really do have a problem... employers need skilled people to come in," Ranson told Newshub.

She suggested more quarantine facilities need to be established nationwide in order to bring in more people safely.

"The barrier is in fact at the border... we need a larger number of quality, quarantine facilities that can be properly managed."

Speaking to Stuff's election podcast Tick.Tick on Saturday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern revealed the Government is considering loosening border restrictions for skilled workers

Ardern agreed the stringent restrictions have taken a greater toll on sectors that are reliant on the skillsets of overseas workers.

"There are sectors that are paying a higher price and that's not just tourism, there are those where they are reliant on international skills to be able to continue operating," she said, agreeing that access to skilled labour will help to grow the post-COVID economy.

New Zealand's borders are currently closed to anyone who is not a New Zealand citizen or permanent resident, with a few exemptions granted to critical workers. In July, it was announced that the Government intends to charge returning New Zealanders for their mandatory 14-day stay at a managed isolation and quarantine facility. The fees will apply to Kiwis who enter for a temporary period, or those who choose to leave the country after the regulations have come into force. 

The minister in charge of managed isolation and quarantine, Megan Woods, is seeking Cabinet approval to charge $3100 per person, as well as $950 for each additional adult in a room and $475 for each additional child.