Jacinda Ardern defends immigration speech amid criticism from Judith Collins, migrant advocates, economists

Judith Collins has laid into the Government's Monday immigration speech, describing it as "one of the most hyped announcements for sometime" which delivered "nothing new".

But the Prime Minister has defended it, saying it was meant to set the scene for the Government's future approach to the sector and signal its intent when it comes to low-skilled migrant workers.

The 'Immigration Reset: Setting the scene' speech delivered by Stuart Nash on behalf of Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi on Monday night laid out the Government's plan for the sector in a post-COVID-19 world.

It was heavily foreshadowed last week when Jacinda Ardern told an Auckland business community about the Government's desire 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". 

That was a key theme of Nash's speech, with the minister noting temporary work visa holders make up almost 5 percent of Aotearoa's labour force, the highest share in the OECD, and high levels of migration have contributed to 30 percent of our total population growth since the early 1990s. 

"Temporary work visa reforms are designed to give more flexibility to migrants filling highly skilled roles, and the reforms will strengthen both the minimum employer requirements and labour market test to be met before a migrant can be hired. We may consider further adjustments to these settings in the future."

Nash also said a further objective would be to "ensure that temporary workers are only recruited for genuine job shortages". There will also be a review of the Skilled Migrant category "with more to say on that soon".

However, there was little specific detail in the speech.

"I was at the speech alongside some 60-or-so journos and industry representatives, some of whom had come from Auckland. Yet there was nothing new in the speech, not even an announcement of an announcement," said New Zealand Institute executive director Oliver Hartwich.

"We need to have a conversation about immigration settings. What they're set at, what they're looking to accomplish, and how they impact the labour market. But tonight's speech didn't provide that detail for the future. My conclusion: confusing," said economist Brad Olsen.

The National Party leader is the latest to criticise the remarks, telling reporters on Tuesday it was "a bit of a speech about nothing much" and was one of "the most hyped announcements for some time".

"It was almost like the Government has now discovered that there could be priority immigration for people with high skills and high incomes and high levels of assets. That is nothing new."

Collins said some sectors rely heavily on migrant workers. 

"I look at people who work in the aged care sector in particular, many of whom are immigrants who come from places like the Philippines and other places, who do an extraordinary job. Without those people, I don't know what New Zealand would do," the National leader said.

"One of the troubles with that announcement last night, which sounded more like an announcement to at some stage have an announcement. It was very difficult to understand what they were talking about."

Judith Collins.
Judith Collins. Photo credit: Newshub.

But the Prime Minister has come to the speech's defence and said the Government doesn't plan to stop foreigners coming here for work. 

"There would have been, rightfully so, criticism if we had come out with a definitive, final position on immigration without having engaged in those sectors that have been most reliant on it," Ardern said on Tuesday.

"What we have given a clear indication of is our view that a rebalance is required. We will not be turning off the tap of access to temporary migrant workers in New Zealand. That is not our intent."

She said it was the Government's job to ensure critical sectors, like aged care, have a workforce in place and they would be consulted with on the transition. 

On Monday, ahead of the speech, the Prime Minister said the Government isn't "sitting there drawing up crude numbers" about how many migrants to let in. Instead, it's about ensuring the best outcomes for both them and New Zealand. 

"What are we offering those who are coming to call New Zealand home if we have constraints on our infrastructure, on our housing. [It] comes back to it is as much about giving a high quality experience to those who make that shift as it is about making sure that it's the right decision for New Zealand as a whole as well."

Jacinda Ardern.
Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Newshub.

Following Ardern's Friday comments, Green Party Immigration spokesperson Ricardo Menéndez March took issue with the language, saying that migrant workers are often essential workers who helped New Zealand during the COVID-19 lockdown. 

"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."

The Restaurant Association says reforms will make it harder for the hospitality industry to access key workers. 

"Around 15 percent of our workforce is currently made up of those on temporary work visas and the reality is that many of these roles are simply not able to be filled by Kiwis."

The association's chief executive Marisa Bidois said Nash's speech was "frustratingly void of detail leaving our sector wondering how they will be able to fill vital roles to keep their businesses open".

Anu Kaloti of the Migrant Workers Association told The AM Show on Tuesday there are now questions about how the changes may impact migrants already here. 

"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."