Opinion: Which immigrants will Labour ban?

OPINION: Labour leader Andrew Little has promised to cut up to 50,000 immigrants a year by "going after work visas".

The problem is - there were only 43,025 work visas issued last year. The promise to turn away "tens of thousands" of immigrants is in a bid to ease pressure on housing and infrastructure, and free up jobs for Kiwis. 

It’s tough talk - but delve into the immigration figures and it gets a lot more complex. It is not as easy as simply turning off the tap.

In fact, it may not be possible without having a major diplomatic and economic impact.

What Andrew Little is proposing

He told The AM Show’s Duncan Garner that he wants annual net migration to be between 20-25,000 people. In the year to February 2017, net migration was 71,333, so to achieve his target he needs to cut back the number of immigrants by between 46,333 - 51,333. He says the bulk of those cutbacks will come from the work visa category.

Breaking down the latest immigration figures

The key figure to show immigration inflow is what’s called "net migration".

In the year to February 2017 it was 71,333 people - roughly the same size as the population of New Plymouth.  

This figure is calculated by subtracting the number of permanent and long term departures (57,483) from the number of permanent and long-term arrivals (128,816). 

A breakdown of the visas:

Opinion: Which immigrants will Labour ban?



In order for Andrew Little to achieve his target, he needs to cull at least 46,333 visas. 

This couldn’t be done by abolishing all 43,025 work visas. But it gets even more difficult than that.

Breaking down the different work visas

The 43,025 work visas are made up of categories that pose very difficult to cut.

The main ones are:

  • Essential Skills visa - these are for migrants who will fill a job in a sector classified as having a skills shortage. It includes farming, viticulture, horticulture, etc.
  • Working Holiday Scheme visa - these allow citizens of friend nations (U.K, Canada, U.S) to come and work here for a year or two. It is reciprocal, so it allows Kiwis to do the same in their nation.
  • Family/spouse visa - this visa is given to partners of both migrant workers and foreign students.
  • Study-to-work visa - This visa allows international students to work in New Zealand once they’ve graduated.
  • Seasonal visa - this temporary visa is part of a deal with a handful of Pacific nations for workers to plant, maintain, harvest or pack crops.
  • Other visas- this category includes a broad range of work visas like free-trade agreement special visas (China, Korea, Philippines etc). It also includes special event and entertainment worker visas.

A breakdown of the different work visas:

Opinion: Which immigrants will Labour ban?

Andrew Little's conundrum

Andrew Little cannot abolish the essential skills visa category, unless he comes up with a way to rapidly train thousands of Kiwis to work in areas where there are skill shortages.

If he abolishes the Working Holiday Scheme, then our friend nations will likely retaliate and prevent Kiwis from having working holidays too.

The Family/Spouse visa could be culled, but he’d be breaking hearts across the globe, and if he abolishes the study-to-work scheme, that would have a serious impact on the number of international students coming to New Zealand universities and polytechnics.

The seasonal working visas are only five percent of the work category, and are a vital part of our role as a responsible Pacific neighbour.

Then there’s the ‘other’ category which is so complex, there cannot be a blanket abolition without breaching free trade deals, or regional agreements.

So what else could be cut?

Not much really, unless he wants to open up a can of diplomatic worms. He could ban Australians coming over - but imagine the effect that would have for Kiwis across the ditch when Australia retaliates with the same.

He could ban international students, but imagine the outrage from the tertiary sector when it loses its cash cows!

That leaves not much else else - he can’t ban those on residents visas without human rights issues.

Labour is expected to announce a detailed policy on immigration later in the year.

The ball is in your court Mr Little - where will you make the cuts?  

Lloyd is a political reporter for Newshub based in Wellington.