Economist warns against relying on immigration to keep economy growing

An economist says our reliance of immigration to keep the economy humming has come back to bite us "on the backside".

Cameron Bagrie says about two-thirds of our GDP growth over the past two years has been down to simply adding more people via migration, which peaked at a net gain of 64,100 in 2016

"One of the downfalls of running a pretty strong net migration-infused economic model for the past 10 years... is I don't think we've invested sufficiently domestically in skills training, staff development," he told The AM Show on Tuesday.

"Lo and behold when you shut the border - which is what we've needed to do - suddenly that comes back and bites you on the backside."

The Government on Monday announced space freed up by the Australia travel bubble and the slowing number of Kiwis coming home would allow it to dedicate a managed isolation (MIQ) facility to seasonal workers.

"We're aiming to have them start arriving by July," COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins told The AM Show.

"There's a bit of a process to go through - not all of the time delay there is something we can control. There's a bit of a process up in the islands to identify the workers that's run in-country by those countries. Then there's all of the visa processing and so on. 

"But primarily they come in through charter flights - that's one of the reasons we've allocated a specific number of rooms for them, so that we can organise fortnightly charter flights."

The number of people coming into the country and having to go into MIQ has slowed lately. In January the country's facilities were at capacity, but now there's room to spare

Cameron Bagrie.
Cameron Bagrie. Photo credit: The AM Show

Bagrie said bringing in seasonal workers wouldn't be a "big-bang" in fixing the worker shortage, but would help ease some of the uncertainty wine growers and other horticultural industries are facing. 

"In the wine industry, winter pruning is actually the period when we have the largest demand for seasonal workers, rather than the harvest period," NZ Winegrowers chair Clive Jones told Newshub.

"We're actually just getting to the point where we really need those extra workers and weren't sure how we were going to get through the season, so this is welcome news, for sure."

Bagrie said the shortage is a warning New Zealand needs to not rely so much on imported labour - even when the COVID-19 pandemic is over and the borders are open again, skill shortages will continue to "intensify". 

"They're going to get worse over the next 10, 20, 30 years because the population is ageing. New Zealand probably missed a bit of an opportunity in 2020 - when New Zealand's economic story was pretty hot in regards to being COVID-free, I think we had the opportunity to get out there and hoover-up 1000 to 2000 key people from around the globe - top academics, entrepreneurs. Unfortunately we're a little bit late in regard to playing that card."