Trapped migrant workers becoming New Zealand's new underclass

Bostock foreman Jim MacDonald teaches new recruits.
Bostock foreman Jim MacDonald teaches new recruits. Photo credit: RNZ / Anusha Bradley

A new underclass is emerging in New Zealand in the COVID-19 era - thousands of migrant workers stuck here with no work, no money and not a lot of support.

Thousands more are caught outside the border not knowing when they can come back.

"People are really, really distressed," says immigration adviser Katy Armstrong. "Even with my background in human rights I can say it’s well up there. Every day that goes by where we don't resolve this is a day where we're actually compounding what was already a very difficult situation and is now creating a humanitarian situation for some of these families."

Right now 350,000 people hold temporary work visas in New Zealand. Tens of thousands of them need to have conditions on their visas changed to allow more flexibility such as moving to another job, and for many it’s urgent. The Government is working through that but for some it is not happening quickly enough - or at all.

On The Detail today, Sharon Brettkelly looks at two elements of the complicated migrant worker crisis; why people with valid work visas can't get back over the border, when foreign filmmakers and sailors can get in; and the working visitors trapped in Hawke's Bay, including the international students, the backpackers and the seasonal workers desperate to get home. 

RNZ's Hawke's Bay reporter Anusha Bradley says their situation is dire.

"These workers, they want to go home, they're missing their families, there's no work here for them or a little bit of work only, but they just can't get home, there's no flights or their governments don't really want them back at the moment."

About 1700 workers from nine Pacific countries are in the region under the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme.

"They come for six to 11 months of the year. They came for the apple harvest and that's over and done with. Their contracts have ended, there isn't really enough work for them all, they're under-employed, they've still got accommodation (provided by their employers) but they're not really earning enough to get by and they're stuck here ... their island nations don't want them back."

Bradley explains to The Detail how the industry and the Government are working on a solution that would mean they are quarantined in New Zealand before flying home. She also talks about the growing fears for the backpackers and international students relying on emergency support in the region.

And immigration adviser Katy Armstrong details the desperation of temporary work visa holders who have been shut out of their lives, work and school because they are on the "wrong side of the border".

"If you were going home tonight with your suitcase and your kids and your husband, you get to the front door and it's locked and all you get is a three-line email saying ‘sorry, no you can't come in. Please don't reply to this email’. You don't have any right of review, you don't have any right of appeal. That's in a nutshell what people have been suffering for the last 12-plus weeks."

It is estimated 62,000 temporary migrant workers are stuck overseas. Only 250 people can come into the country each day, with capacity to quarantine about 3200 people at one time.

Returning citizens and residents have priority, but Immigration Minister Ian Lees-Galloway says the 10,000-odd temporary work visa holders who would be ordinarily resident are next.

Armstrong says the delays are putting people in dire situations. She cites a family of five who have lived in New Zealand for several years forced to stay in a shed in South Africa after their request to return to their work and school was turned down repeatedly.