Labour confirms plans to cut immigrant numbers by up to 30,000

Labour has confirmed plans to slash immigrant numbers if it comes to power in September.

Leader Andrew Little made the announcement in Auckland - ground zero in New Zealand's immigration debate - on Monday afternoon.

It says it will reduce net migration by 20,000 to 30,000 a year, which it says will "ease pressure" on New Zealand and Auckland.

Mr Little says without those changes, it would mean an additional 10,000 houses will be needed each year and 20,000 more cars on the road.

The visa category changes:

  • Student visa - limiting visas and ability to work for low value courses (drop of 6000 -10,000)
  • Post study work visa - remove work visas without a job offer for lower-level qualifications (drop of 9000 - 12,000)
  • Work visas - regionalise the occupation list, ensure employers hire Kiwis first (drop of 5000 - 8000)

Mr Little acknowledged New Zealand was a country "built on immigration," but that didn't mean changes can't be made.

National "didn't foresee" the record number of migrants and has failed to plan for it, Mr Little says.

He also criticised National for creating "a backdoor to residency via low-level study and low-skill work".

"These have had the perverse effect that a 23-year-old with a New Zealand diploma and three years' experience in retail can get more points towards residency than a 45-year-old oncologist who wants to migrate here," Mr Little says.

"Closing off the ability to work during and after study for people who do low-level courses will stop backdoor immigration. We will end the culture of exploitation and corruption that's grown up to prey on people using this route to come to New Zealand."

New visas created

To help satisfy demand for construction jobs needed to fulfil Labour's policy to build 100,000 affordable homes in 10 years, a new 'KiwiBuild Visa' will be created.

Residential construction firms can hire a skilled tradesperson on a three-year visa without having to meet the Labour Market Test if they pay the living wage and take on an apprentice for every overseas worker.

Labour would also put in place an 'Exceptional Skills Visa' for 1000 people a year who can show they're qualified in a job on the long-term skills list and have significant experience or are internationally renowned.

It'll mean they can bypass the normal requirements under the Skilled Migrant Visa and will allow them to bring a partner and children. The party believes this will help grow New Zealand's new high-tech industries.

Warnings over immigration cuts

But such a plan came with a warning from both Prime Minister Bill English and Massey University population expert Professor Paul Spoonley the economy could suffer as a result.

"Big parts of this economy are going very well - tourism, hospitality, IT, horticulture, construction of course going flat-out," Mr English told The AM Show on Monday.

"In these sectors we're close to full employment… they just can't get the people to get the job done. If you want houses for people we're going to need skilled workers to build them. If you shut them down, you won't get the houses."

Prof Spoonley questioned whether Mr Little is "willing to put the economy in jeopardy to go with the populist position".

The policy, which has been long-talked about, comes amid a background of record high net migration - 71,900 in the year to April 2017 - and an intense debate over what to do about it.

Mr English has previously said the squeeze on infrastructure and housing as a result of migration levels, which include more Kiwis returning to New Zealand, is a sign of a successful country and economy.

Aged care will suffer under immigration changes - association

Changes to immigration have also been criticised by the Aged Care Association which says the issue is being put on the political agenda without thinking about the impact on the aged care sector.

Chief executive Simon Wallace says migrants are "essential" to continuous quality care to the country's older citizens.

Around a third of the workforce is on some kind of work or residence visa, the association says, and they're "expertly suited" because they have overseas nursing qualifications but don't currently meet registration requirements to work as nurses in New Zealand.

"We already face critical shortages in New Zealand's caregiver workforce, particularly in aged residential care, which will escalate in the next decade as the need for care rises sharply with our rapidly ageing population."

He says employers go out of their way to give preference to New Zealand workers, but they struggle to get any who are qualified or want the job.  

ACT Party leader David Seymour says New Zealand businesses are "screaming out" for immigrant workers and neither Labour or National understand how badly they're needed.

"If National and Labour had housing and infrastructure policies that actually worked, they wouldn't need to roll out increasingly desperate immigration crackdowns," he said on Monday just before Labour was due to unveil its immigration policy.

"ACT will stand up for taxpayer-friendly immigration, allowing businesses to access the labour they need and welcoming immigrants who come here to be peaceful and productive."