Labour to businesses: Upskill your workers, or pay up

Andrew Little (Simon Wong / Newshub.)
Andrew Little (Simon Wong / Newshub.)

Labour is considering a plan to put a levy on employers who'd rather import skilled labour rather than upskill their own workers.

But leader Andrew Little doesn't think it's a tax on immigrants, instead calling the proposal a way to force "industries to invest in training for their future workforces and future skills needs".

The idea has come from the party's Future of Work Commission.

"We're just not producing enough people with the skills that we need," Mr Little told The Nation on Saturday.

"There are some employers who do a great job - they take on apprentices - but there are others who don't. They get the benefit of a skilled workforce - they just take them from fully qualified people.

"If we want to make sure we've got the skills for the future… for those employers who don't take on apprentices, don't invest in training, you can contribute a levy and that'll help to defray the cost of those who are doing the training and other broader costs as well."

But don't call it an immigration tax. Mr Little says it's to make sure Kiwis can do the kind of work that's going to be on offer in the future, rather than a disincentive to hiring immigrants. He says that's inevitable in some industries, and overseas labour will always play a role in the Kiwi workforce.

"If you did no training, no education and people had to go overseas to get it, sure. The only way you're going to fill skills shortages… is to bring them in from overseas. "

On the other hand, he thinks there are still too many people being granted work visas to do jobs Kiwis should be taking.

"We have, according to our unemployment statistics, roughly 15,000 people who do labouring work who are unemployed. Last year we issued 6500 visas for people to do labouring work. That doesn't make sense. You manage immigration policy to deal with that issue.

"The number of work visas going to people on semi-skilled jobs and occupations that could be filled by people here, even with a little bit of training, that doesn't make sense."

The proposal hasn't been costed yet, and the finer details - like who would pay, and exactly how that money would be spent - are yet to be determined.

"I can't quantify it, but if you accept that we have had a constant and consistent problem of not getting enough of the skilled labour into a range of industries, then we want to make sure the resources are there to allow that to happen. In the end, it benefits every business in the industry."

The Government made its first immigration cuts in years just last month, cutting residence approvals by 5000 over the next two years. It also boosted the points needed to get a skilled migrants visa from 140 to 160.

Immigration has been rising over the last five years, to record levels.

Mr Little's confident the Future of Work Commission's proposal, if it became Labour policy, would be backed by industry leaders - because it would spread the cost of training and upskilling across the board, rather than leave it up to a few companies.

"How about as a matter of fairness we share the cost, we share the risk?"