Union says immigration announcement 'cheap labour stitch-up between Government, business'

But the Immigration Minister's office says unions were consulted.
But the Immigration Minister's office says unions were consulted. Photo credit: Newshub.

First Union says new agreements which exempt some sectors from median wage requirements when hiring migrant workers reflect a "cheap labour stitch-up between the Government and business".

But a spokesperson for the Immigration Minister says unions were involved in establishing the agreements, which were signalled well in advance. 

When the immigration rebalance was announced in May, the Government included median wage thresholds for businesses wishing to hire migrants on the Accredited Employer Work Visa. That means businesses hiring migrants under the scheme must pay them at least the median wage of $27.76 per hour.

Immigration Minister Michael Wood on Sunday announced the Government had developed agreements with several sectors with time-limited exemptions to the requirements to help address worker shortages. That's in exchange for sectors agreeing to workforce improvements.

The agreements, which were flagged in May, are with aged care, seafood, meat processing, construction and adventure tourism.

"We have listened to the concerns of these sectors, and worked with them to take practicable steps to unlock additional labour, we know these measures will help fill skills gaps, as businesses work towards more productive and resilient ways of operating," Wood said on Sunday.

But First Union, which represents workers in construction, meat and seafood, is frustrated it wasn't consulted and is concerned the agreements may keep wages down. 

"There is no clear justification for exempting workers in these sectors from the median wage protection that will be extended to workers in other industries," said First Union general secretary Dennis Maga.

He said the lack of construction with First Union suggests "that this a cheap labour stitch-up between the Government and businesses".

But a spokesperson for Wood said the sector agreements were "well signalled" in May and that "unions were consulted as part of the development of sector agreements".

"Sector agreements allow for time limited exceptions to the new median wage requirements for businesses hiring skilled migrant workers, helping sectors transition and build the skills needed for these industries right here in New Zealand," the spokesperson said. 

"Each agreement also includes expectations for improvement, including the implementation of Workforce Transition Plans and Industry Transformation Plans. Performance against these will be monitored and feed into reviews and decisions about future access to migrants below the median wage."

Immigration Minister Michael Wood.
Immigration Minister Michael Wood. Photo credit: Newshub.

Each agreement is slightly different. The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment, which Immigration NZ is housed under, said it looked at wage data for work visa holders and consulted with relevant government agencies and sector representatives. 

The threshold for some roles in construction and infrastructure is reduced to $25 with a review in two years. This will be updated each year to make sure the threshold remains 90 percent of the median wage.

But Maga said the average hourly wage in construction is $33.77 and is growing at 5 to 6 percent per year.

"Enabling employers to recruit for almost $9 dollars an hour below this seems a clear attempt to constrain wage growth here in one of our key productive industries," he said.

"The immigration rebalance was supposed to push back against this kind of wage repression, but it seems that the Government is conspiring to undercut this approach."

The immigration rebalance - first signalled last year - was intended to help New Zealand move away from a reliance on low-skilled and low-paid migrant workers. The Government wants to see more high-skilled workers come to New Zealand and a greater focus on training Kiwis.

"New Zealand cannot return to pre-pandemic trends that saw us overly reliant on growing numbers of lower-skilled workers and resulted in the increased exploitation of migrants," said then-Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi in May.

Other changes announced by Wood on Sunday include extending working holiday visas for those holders already in the country and making an additional 12,000 spaces available.

The Greens criticised the announcement.

"On the one hand the Government wants to lift wages via immigration settings, but on the other continue using visa schemes that are inherently exploitative for people from the global south to pander to businesses that pay low wages," said immigration spokesperson Ricardo Menéndez March.

He also said removing the median wage requirement for some sectors was to "satisfy businesses' needs".

The Accredited Employer Work Visa still requires employers to check there are no New Zealanders available for the job before looking offshore.

National's Erica Stanford said extending the working holiday visa was "too little, too late". 

"Because of the staffing shortages, restaurants are forced to close their doors for two or three nights a week, and hotels have to ask guests to change their own sheets," she said.

"Yet Labour has continued to move at a glacial pace, and it is businesses hurt most by COVID that are paying the price."

Meat Industry Association chief executive Sirma Karapeeva said the sector agreement goes a long way to addressing labour shortages. 

"Labour shortages have been a significant issue for the meat processing sector for some time so this agreement is a welcome boost to our own domestic recruitment efforts," said Karapeeva.

"Without sufficient employees, processors cannot run plants to the desired capacity, fully process all products and capture the maximum value."