COVID-19: Migrant workers in Gisborne say tough immigration restrictions are causing stress, mental anguish

Mohamed Thariq is missing his wife and son (L) - Pietru Van Vuuren (R).
Mohamed Thariq is missing his wife and son (L) - Pietru Van Vuuren (R). Photo credit: Tom Kitchin / RNZ

By Tom Kitchin of RNZ

Migrant workers in Gisborne are speaking out about the stress and mental anguish caused by tough immigration restrictions.

COVID-19 has slammed the door for many foreign workers and their families and businesses desperate for skilled labour are demanding change.

One migrant is Mohamed Thariq from Sri Lanka, who has not seen his family in nearly two years.

He has a wife and a son, who was only two when he left. He wanted them in New Zealand, but could not get a visa.

He said he applied for a family visa last year but still does not have one.

When asked how he felt about not seeing his family, he was lost for words.

"I can't explain that, only two options. One - I want to go back to Sri Lanka, otherwise I want to bring my family here."

He came to Gisborne to be a diesel mechanic.

"So we plan to move here for a better life, but now I struggle."

South African Pietru Van Vuuren moved to New Zealand with his family in January last year.

He immigrated for his children.

"We were set in our careers but our kids had no future because of the climate in South Africa. That's why we decided we'd have a better opportunity in New Zealand."

But he was struggling to get residency, which created uncertainty for his family.

"I've got my son that's every day, 'when is this going to happen, what's happening there?' At the moment he's so stressed he's actually on medication to help him sleep because he can't sleep at night."

Absolute Immigration director Arno Nothnagel, whose firm helps businesses deal with the requirements, said current tough rules were mentally taxing for his clients.

"It's a snowball effect, it starts with the mental health, which leads to less productivity, which of course means less productivity for the businesses and that kind of leads to a big mess at the moment."

Dave Scammell of Total Parts and Services in Gisborne said the top priority should be to reunite families.

"To get these families back together, the ones that are separated at the moment, it needs to be the priority for us all. We go on about [New Zealand] being a humanitarian and concerned nation, well we're not living and walking that talk."

In a statement, Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi said the Government was aware of the challenges COVID-19 had presented for many businesses.

Border controls and carefully managed entry had prevented community spread of the virus and allowed business activity to continue, and the Government regularly reviewed border settings and made adjustments where possible, he said.

"Further changes included last month's extension to around 10,000 Working Holiday and Supplementary Seasonal work visas, which were due to expire between June 21, 2021 and December 31, 2021 for a further six months to help manage ongoing labour shortages while New Zealand's COVID-19 border restrictions remain in place."

"We also gave open work rights to the Supplementary Seasonal Employer work scheme visa open work rights. These changes provide employers with continued access to the current onshore workforce to help fill roles.

"While the Government didn't extend essential skills visas last month, the duration of essential skills visas for jobs paid below the median wage will be increased from six to 12 months, to align with pre-COVID-19 settings. This provides more certainty to workers and their employers that workers whose skills are still needed in New Zealand can remain here; subject to labour market testing to prove there are no New Zealanders available to fill the role."

He said the Government would continue to monitor both the border and labour market.