Concerns for migrant workers, temporary visa holders as Govt's immigration overhaul slammed as 'racist'

Migrant workers are reeling after the Government outlined its plans to close the door to low-skilled labour, leaving temporary visa holders in limbo and raising questions about racism, exploitation and families' futures. 

On Monday night, Economic Development Minister Stuart Nash - filling in for an unwell Immigration Minister, Kris Faafoi - delivered a speech to business leaders in Auckland regarding the Government's proposed immigration overhaul. 

He reiterated the Government's intention to target high-skilled workers and wealthy investors while shifting away from low-skilled migrant labour, suggesting a crackdown on temporary visas is imminent. 

Those on temporary work visas make up 5 percent of the labour force, the highest share in the OECD. However, this population of workers are increasingly lower-skilled.

"This means businesses have been able to rely on lower-skilled labour and suppress wages rather than investing capital in productivity-enhancing plant and machinery, or employing and upskilling New Zealanders into work," Nash said, adding that temporary visas should be reserved for genuine skill shortages.

The Skilled Migrant Category will be reviewed, but details on what that might mean for workers are scarce. No new announcements were made in the speech, with Nash describing it as a "scene-setter".

However, the speech was particularly disconcerting for Migrant Workers Association president Anu Kaloti, who is concerned about what the latest announcement means for New Zealand's existing population of migrant workers and temporary visa holders stranded overseas.

Speaking to The AM Show on Tuesday, Kaloti said she is unsure what the Government's plans will mean for migrant workers who are already living in New Zealand.

"We have no issues with economic growth, businesses create jobs - that's all good. But they are going to focus on just high-skilled migrants - 200 investors, we're told, will be here over the next year. It'll create jobs, we hope - but what about the people who are already here? We have around 250,000 temporary visa holders in the country at the moment," Kaloti said.

Anu Kaloti said racism may be playing an underlying role in the Government's immigration overhaul, noting the majority of temporary work visa holders stranded overseas are Indian.
Anu Kaloti said racism may be playing an underlying role in the Government's immigration overhaul, noting the majority of temporary work visa holders stranded overseas are Indian. Photo credit: The AM Show

Meanwhile, tens-of-thousands of people on temporary work visas remain stranded off-shore, barred from returning to their homes and livelihoods due to the ongoing border restrictions - with Kaloti concerned that underlying racism may be playing a role.

"They've made this country home. Nothing's been said about them either - what's going to happen to them?" Kaloti said.

"People who are stranded off-shore largely are from India, and then recently we've seen flights stopped as well to citizens and permanent residents. And yet, I would be really surprised if some of these 200 investors who are going to come in - if they're from India, and if they're stopped, I would be surprised to see that."

'We don't know'

She agreed the announcement did not provide enough information about the proposed changes and how they will impact New Zealand's existing migrant population.

"People have been here for five, 10 [years] - I know families who have been here 15 years, with children about to finish high school. Those people have been brought here on a promise they would get residency - so what happens to those people?" 

Although Kaloti doubts low-skilled migrant workers will be ousted from the country in a radical upheaval, she said their future is murky. 

"Nothing was said yesterday. We don't know. We've not been given enough detail."

She acknowledged the demand for low-skilled migrants has led to wage suppression as  employers are able to hire more workers for less cost. 

"Wages do get suppressed. We have fairly good employment laws - the problem is that they're not enforced properly. That's also part of the equation here," she said.

However, she says she cannot see how this proposed policy will prevent exploitation, pointing to several studies that suggest exploitation only occurs when visas are tied to employers. 

"Until or unless we enforce laws properly, we will keep seeing things like migrant exploitation. Everything is picture-perfect on paper, but in practice it's different."

If the Government were to enforce an exodus of migrant workers - and prevent those stranded overseas from returning - the fallout for the families would be indescribable.

"I would hate to think that we suddenly get a large population of overstayers - we don't want that. People would obviously try to go to other countries. A lot of these people can't go back home, they've got huge debts," she said. 

"Then there's the social shame side of things. They can't return."

Kaloti isn't the only one who is concerned following Nash's announcement. The "scene-setter" has been panned as both confusing and concerning by critics, with Infometrics senior economist Brad Olsen telling RNZ the speech lacked any concrete detail.

"I came away from this speech just feeling simply confused, unsure of exactly what this speech was about, [but] more importantly from an economic and business perspective, unsure how this will change decision-making," he said.

"I think it will probably have prompted a lot more questions than answers."

On Friday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern foreshadowed Monday's announcement while speaking to business leaders in Auckland.

"We want to shift the balance away from low-skilled, low-paid work towards attracting high-skilled migrants and addressing genuine skill shortages in order to improve productivity," Ardern said

"Minister Faafoi will also outline changes to attract targeted, high-value international investment into New Zealand - something many people in this room have been calling for."