Green MP Ricardo Menéndez March is concerned about Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's approach to shift "away from low-skilled, low-paid" migrants to help raise productivity.
Ardern made the remarks in a speech to the business community in Auckland on Friday, where she foreshadowed an announcement Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi will make on Monday.
"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."
Ardern added during a Q&A session: "We're talking about honing in on those who will bring a rich offering to New Zealand in terms of business opportunity and are ready to invest and are ready to provide employment opportunities as a result."
Menéndez March, the Green party's immigration spokesperson, took issue with the language being used because "so-called low-skilled" migrants are often essential workers who kept New Zealand afloat during COVID-19.
"I think it's a disservice to the contribution of many migrant workers, many who made essential contributions during the pandemic, to be calling them low-skilled, when really our immigration system has referred to low-skilled people based on their salary," he told Newshub.
"This is reflective of the fact that the skilled migrant category now is measured on salary and the new accredited employer work visa also has salary criteria, and that's not reflective of the skills that people have.
"Our concern is that the Government is not focusing on the wellbeing of the migrants who are already here, many of whom are vulnerable to exploitation and who are vulnerable to a resurgence of COVID-19."
The Immigration Minister was confronted by protesters outside Parliament on Thursday, many of whom have been split from their families due to immigration rules, while others are facing a two-year wait for their visas to be renewed.
Last month Faafoi finally fixed an immigration anomaly which allowed migrant healthcare workers to bring in their families. Other skilled workers could also bring their families in, but only if their visas were active on April 30.
But the Government is now under pressure to fix another immigration anomaly, this time over construction workers arriving in New Zealand who can bring their families in, while those already here cannot.
Faafoi said on Friday he understood the frustration.
"It is very difficult. The year before the borders closed we had around 7 million arrivals into New Zealand - since we've closed the borders, in 14 months we've been able to bring in about 226,000," he told The AM Show.
"There aren't many families, communities or sectors that haven't been affected by the border closures, but it is our main weapon at the moment to make sure we can keep COVID out."
The Government postponed a number of visa programmes in the wake of COVID-19, including the skilled migrant category, for which applications can take up to two years. Last month the backlog stood at 7750 "expressions of interest" from people wanting to place residency applications.
National's immigration spokesperson Erica Stanford says New Zealand is in danger of losing skilled migrants due to a backlog of residence applications.
"He is refusing to reunite split migrant families, sort out the residence backlog, or to grant work visas to dependent children of migrant parents while they wait for their families residence applications to be processed."
On Monday, Faafoi will speak about plans for an "immigration reset" as part of the Government's broader COVID-19 strategy.
"More generally, we're using COVID to actually stop and take a look at our wider immigration settings," Ardern said in her speech.
The NZ Association for Migration and Investment (NZAMI) understands Faafoi will announce on Monday that 30,000 current skilled migrant category applications will be "lapsed" and applicants will be offered a refund.
NZAMI chair June Ranson says she's "gravely concerned" about the impact such a decision would have on migrants who have invested in New Zealand.
Menéndez March fears New Zealand becoming like Dubai, where a migrant workforce is kept on temporary status for years without a pathway to residency and is therefore left open to exploitation.
"Our immigration system has enabled millionaire investors from easily accessing residency class visas, while many people in construction, healthcare and several essential industries are often classified as low-skilled and have few pathways to residency."