MUST READ: Migration, chefs and essential skills



MBIE is consulting on whether to continue to include “Chefs” in the category of “Essential Skills” that allow employers to bring staff in from overseas on temporary work visas for up to five years.
Andrew Little got into trouble recently for questioning whether this was a category of labour that was genuinely in short supply. He was made to appear as if he was against migrant workers coming to New Zealand.

Chefs have been one of the largest groups receiving these essential skills visas. There were 7000 visas issued in the last two years alone. In the 2013 census there were only 16,218 people employed as chefs in New Zealand so the annual intake is about 20% of the total!

The top ten skilled migrant categories are chefs, dairy cattle farmer, cafe/restaurant manager, retail manager, carpenter, dairy cattle farm worker, retail supervisor, aged or disabled carer, truck driver, registered nurse (aged care).

Most of these aren’t what would be considered necessarily highly skilled jobs. Most of them we should be expecting that training is made available to young school leavers to train for and be able to fill these sorts of jobs. I believe all school leavers should be guaranteed a job or training. That is a legitimate demand that can and should be made by the labour movement in this country.

The real problem is that there is a gigantic scam being perpetrated on the country by big business and their governments. This involves issuing tens of thousands of temporary work and student visas each year in the full knowledge that they are creating a massive pool of vulnerable and easily exploitable labour.

There are at least 150,000 people here working on some sort of temporary visa at any one time. Many of these workers are in very vulnerable positions. There are about 30,000 workers on essential skills visas. Around 30,000 of those on student visas are working. There are 30,000 on working holiday visas. Another 30,000 people have work visas as spouses of those on a skilled work or student visa. Study to work visas account for 15,000 and 10,000 mainly Pacific workers are in horticulture and viticulture.

In the 2014/15 year MBIE issued 170,814 temporary work visas as well as 84,856 student visas.
Some industries including hospitality, dairy farming and aged care have come to be permanently dependent on workers on temporary visas.

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Companies that Unite Union represents staff in including tourist hotels and fast food, the bosses confessed that 30 to 40 percent of their staff were on temporary visas.

One of the reasons used to justify bringing in labour from overseas is the alleged urgent skills’ shortage. If there was such a shortage it would be reflected in rising wages for the industry or occupations concerned.

With this fact in mind I thought it useful to look at the wages being paid to chefs. The Restaurant Association of New Zealand used to produce an annual report but this was discontinued in 2013. The data I have goes back to 2007.

If we compare the rates being paid chefs in 2007 and 2013 we see that there was a real wage decline for every category over those years. The rates paid in the surveys of April 2007 and April 2013. I then adjust the 2007 rate by the 16% inflation that occurred over those years and find the rate should have been significantly higher just to match price increases. Real wages had declined. The minimum wage increased 22% over the same period.



Occasionally, Unite gets consulted by MBIE over whether a particular company’s application for the right to bring in labour from overseas should be approved. In November 2014, we got one about the SkyCity Casino. It seems they wanted to bring in about 40 chefs of various sorts. I assume SkyCity, too, are claiming they can’t find people in New Zealand to do this work. Fourteen of the positions were for commis chefs, a junior position that SkyCity they currently pay $16.49 an hour for – only $1.08 more than the minimum wage.

The hotel and hospitality sector was turned into a minimum wage industry not by importing migrants but by destroying unions in that sector in the 1990s under the Employment Contracts Act. It is a fact, however, that the industry would not have been able to keep it at minimum wage when unemployment began to drop again in the late 1990s and early 2000s had it not been able to use temporary migrants.

It is also simply a fact that the free availability of vulnerable migrant workers is used to push down wages and conditions in the industries they work in.

So if you hear anyone from the tourism, hotel and hospitality sector complain about the lack of skilled staff, they need to be told to start training staff and paying wages that will make that job worth doing.

It is also the entire dairy farm sector which claims it can’t survive without recruiting labour from the Philippines – even when dairy prices were at record levels. The dairy farm owners through their associations are strong advocates of letting the free market work when it is to their advantage. But when it came to having to pay higher market prices to attract labour to work on their farms in Southland, they got the government to allow them to recruit in the Philippines instead.

Employers always argue that they need to have the complete freedom to import labour at will. At the moment, tourism operators are screaming that they need more temporary workers and the government should allow more in. In an article in the New Zealand Herald on November 10, 2014, headlined “Foreign worker limits ‘choking tourism’” industry bosses complained that New Zealand workers didn’t want to go and work in the regions. The general manager of Goldridge Resort, Penny Clark, “said the ‘ideal’ of having Kiwis filling housekeeping or hospitality roles didn’t fit reality.”

Of course, there is a simple answer to the problem of a labour shortage in places like Queenstown – pay better wages to attract the staff. When the market doesn’t respond to the price being offered – raise the price. It never seems to occur to the business operators that paying the minimum wage for work that can be very heavy and skilled like housekeeping and hospitality, located in parts of the country that are extremely expensive to live like Queenstown, just doesn’t add up.

It used to be a standard condition of employment in hotels like those in Queenstown that board and accommodation was provided. In those circumstances, there was no problem attracting labour. Those conditions were eliminated along with set hours, overtime rates and much else during the dark days of the Employment Contracts Act in the 1990s, and they have never returned. It is no wonder the employers now rely on temporary migrant labour that they feel they can use and abuse.

Big companies have also used migrant labour to reduce the wages of management staff in New Zealand. In the fast food industry, wages for managers have declined by at least a third in real terms over the last couple of decades. Migrant labour has been used extensively to achieve this result.
Management visas used to be good enough for permanent residence in the past. Running a McDonald’s, KFC, or BK store is a complex undertaking. There are usually between 50 to 100 staff and the outlets often operate 24/7. The average wage for a manager today is around $40,000 a year.

Twenty years ago, the average was over $60,000 in today’s dollars.

With the removal of Restaurant Manager from the positions able to be used for permanent residence applicaions these companies now have a genuine crisis on their hands. The truth is they have been paying well below market rates for management staff because the workers were focused on future residency, not their current wage. It will be very hard for the companies to get anyone who is New Zealand-born or has permanent residence to run a 24-7 store with up to a hundred staff for a salary of only $40,000. Unite has evidence that companies are already being forced to adjust salaries upwards to attract management staff.

The current system of migration controls is designed to assist bosses by keeping hundreds of thousands of workers in vulnerable positions able to be exploited.

Having tens of thousands of workers come each year on temporary visas in the hope of being one of the lucky ones who are able to transition to permanent residence is cruel in the extreme.

Workers are competing with each other to win the favour of their boss so their visa will be renewed or changed in some way to allow work to continue. Many hope to be able to get into a position where they can get a job that qualifies as one able to be used to transition to permanent residence. However only one in five of those who come here on temporary work or student visas ultimately is able to become permanent residents.

The fact that there are hundreds of thousands of workers who are actually working in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs is proof that this labour is needed not just to plug a temporary lack of skilled workers as is often claimed. It is evidence that there is a need for these workers across a range of roles in the economy – skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled.

Instead of using a rotating door of migrant workers to fill these gaps, there should be a more permanent solution. Migrants that have been brought here to work already should be given the right to residency. Alongside this, there should also be compulsory training and apprenticeship programmes paid for by employers so that any young person in this country who wants to can have a chance at getting these jobs as well. It is inhumane to bring hundreds of thousands of young workers to New Zealand from other countries to fill a spot in the economy only to be replaced in a few years.

As a first step all workers currently in New Zealand must have full legal rights – including the right to change their employer which workers on essential skills visas cannot do. All workers currently in New Zealand should be given first preference to take up permanent residence if they want to.


  1. We need to stop shaping our immigration for the needs of business. Bringing in Labour to fill gaps is an excuse to under-fund education. Immigrantion shouldn’t be a tool for capitalism.

    Labour needs to address this issue. Their skills based immigration policy is a disgrace. It disempowers all workers – both local and incoming. It also justifies a neoliberal education system of high debt and minimal funding.

    • Actually culinary skills don’t have much to do with qualifications, but more to do with viarty, quality and price of produce.

      You learn more from making sandwiches for 2 years as a job than you would any 3 year city and guilds certificate training.

      But seriously if you want better trained chefs in NZ you’d have to make food and wine cheaper so most bars can serve $10 steaks or something like that.

      Turning a bunch of high school drop outs into pros ain’t that easy

        • I hate to say it, but the two Philippinos who installed my ultra-fast fiber were efficient, friendly, etc. Maybe NZ is short of people with such expertise, but I know that there are a good number of youngsters leaving secondary school who are not what transition teachers call ‘work-ready’.
          I am dead against importing cheap labour for work that jobless Kiwis can do – and it looks like there is quite a lot of that work.

          • I’m sure you are right about some migrant workers, but try getting a Nigerian speaking Chorus worker out and you will not be a convert. As well as not being about to install a phone line first, second or sometimes even third time lucky, how the hell do they communicate back if they can’t even speak English – (bear in mind that telecoms has about 3 or 4 middle companies for every basic job connected through calls centers that get everything wrong so having non english speaking technicians who actually don’t know what they are doing, is a bit of nightmare for that role).

            But the flip side of that is, if Kiwi workers are so hopeless – what happened to them???

            20 years ago they were some of the most valued workers in the world – in the UK especially – known for their hard working attitude.

            Hmmm what happened over 20 years ago – Rogernomics!!

            • I had a Chorus worker from Zimbabwe fix my phone line a few years ago, he did a good job, spoke good English and was friendly and helpful.

              There are of course some well qualified migrants that come in, but question must be asked, why are we short of some workers. It may be due to low pay, poor conditions, and only getting employed when a “boom” period happens, that many have decided to move to Australia or elsewhere in the world to sell their labour or services.

        • @kit. Other countries drop outs make better wonton noodle soup than our drop outs. Culinary skills is a by product of how our food markets have developed.

          If by skilled chefs you mean a first year cooking student that can put frozen food stuff into a deep fat truer then NZ can do that all day because frozen foods is what the New Zealand food industry has invested in as a consequence of our trade policies.

          It’s all connected bruh. If you want a high wage economy you have to stump up the upfront costs.

  2. This business or racket with “chefs” and even other hospitality staff has been going on for years, many years. The argument is, they need to have specialist skills to cook certain dishes typical for some ethnic or whatever specialty restaurants, which the average NZer does not have. But as we already have a very diverse population, the arguments do not stack up.

    Fact seems to be, that imported, new migrant chefs are exploited, and I have heard enough anecdotal evidence re that, and work extremely long hours at comparatively low pay and often in poor conditions. The employers prefer those with no or little English skills, as they are easy to exploit. They even argue they need skills in Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Hindu, perhaps Arabic, maybe French or whatever else, as the other staff in the team in the kitchen work and communicate in those languages.

    But one would think we have enough people that either are already skilled or that can be trained to do the same job, coming perhaps from various backgrounds, being diverse culturally and ethnically.

    I think that it is a scam, to exploit those who are the weakest, new and unable to inform themselves quickly about their rights and social realities here, so they are stuck with work for a few years and have little contacts to others outside and can be exploited.

    Once they find a way to inform themselves, they will soon be out of employment, if they raise issues, either on a plane out again, or if lucky, become NZ residents.

    With tourism booming, many cut throat operators will also be out there, jumping on the bandwagon to make money, and they will only perpetuate this problem.

  3. Further to the above, the hospitality sector has always been a comparatively low wage and salary sector. Tourism is internationally not a very lucrative business for employees, it may be so for the operators, but not the workers, getting mostly low pay.

    So when our government likes to go on about the great success of our tourism sector, this is stuff to be cautious about. Tourism is a highly competitive business, and New Zealand competes with many other nations for tourists. We are actually creating a sector that is not promising great returns for workers and the economy as a whole, just look at other traditional tourism destinations, those popular in Europe are mostly the poorer countries there, e.g. Greece.

    And also do our supermarkets like to hire new migrants, as I see it happen especially at Pak’n Save, where we have many checkout operators from the Philippines, Fiji and India, all working long shifts, at just above the minimum wage. They can only get by, because most of them are female and have husbands or partners also working, earning more than the staff at the supermarkets.

    This is the truth behind much of our supposedly “booming economy”, a future that may be brighter for some, but is blighted for others.

  4. This is an excellent analysis of the current mess this counrty is in. The numbers of workers on temporary visas is simply breath taking.

    But where the hell are the Labour Party on this subject? I hope they have a firm position on this mindless immigration but I also hope it is not a safe fence sitting sort of like National but not as bad, crap!

    • Bloody good work Mike,
      Can you send this to Campbell live to light this up please as we need to get this raised in front of the voters, and put the spotlight on the secretive MBIE SS Joyce propaganda bunker.

  5. It was obvious years and years ago that this sort of ‘ importation’ of foreign labour had as its central motive one of duplicity.

    Do you all remember the catch cry and slogans of the day such as ‘ we need to be tolerant’, ‘multicultural’ ‘ diverse’ , ‘ the brain drain’ ( which morphed into the ‘ skill shortage ‘ )….

    Does it not strike you as odd that at the same time as the post Douglas 1984 neo liberal govts took hold,… that this propaganda increased ?

    And that we as New Zealanders had the ‘ guilt’s ‘ cast on us if we did not agree ,… and have an open mind ?… and that that ‘guilt’ was used to shut down all and any objection to importing easy exploitable labour, -and that it was also used as a method to underpin the Employment Contracts Act?

    Not only that , but as Mike Treen points out ,… that it was also used as a tool to abolish apprenticeships and undermine unions , – and as a direct result and pre planned motive … to lower wages and most certainly conditions?

    New Zealanders have been thoroughly conned and conned again some.

    You can thank right wing lobby groups and think tanks such as the Business Roundtable ( now the NZ Institute ) for that.

    ” But this means cheap produce ” , ” this means we can get rich by running our own business ” you say.

    Really ?… are you truly thinking of the longer term wages and conditions of your own children when you say such things?… or is your self serving appetite and avarice and greed made apparent by supporting such on going conditions only there simply to serve number 1,… ie : yourself?

    Recommendations such as Mike Treen makes, and a govt that takes a firm line on immigration would perhaps expose the underpinning greedy motives that too many New Zealanders have been allowed to indulge in for a good 3 decades.

    Like the runaway housing crisis, and introduction of a serious capital gains tax to slow that pathological greed process down for future societal health , – the same needs to be done with immigration.

    It is not good enough to keep fostering the lie that we need to import ‘ skilled workers’ when we already have enough of our own people to fill those jobs – and as Mike Treen suggests – that the deliberate moves to create those fraudulent conditions and the propaganda that was used needs to be closed down. Coupled with the reintroduction of worker protections, apprenticeships and realistic living wages.

    It is time that there is some basic , simple , fundamental honesty and integrity brought back into this country and that the economic raiders that have been enabled for so long to wantonly plunder their fellow New Zealanders have their wings firmly clipped to prevent further dishonest rorts and abuses such as what is being currently allowed and openly encouraged to proliferate under neo liberal policies.

    • 1000% WK hit the nail on the head why cant the people see that?

      Traitorous, – So-right Wild Katipo,

      Jonkey doodle dandy has now effectively dispossessed our nation and its people for his preference of pouring any other poor nations flotsam & jetsam into NZ.

      Most historians will reflect in years to come as this being similar to Genocide!!!!
      Evidenced by Martyn’s statement that Key is keen “to allow a slave market of lowly paid workers to flood our country” and helicoptered them into our country to cause an underclass of poor Kiwi’s to create a divide & rule mentality akin to what happened during the Germany 1930’s with the Gipsies and Jews before the second world war.

      Perhaps they are following this same system on control and divide our country and he should be locked up for genocide.

      “Key; 2009 ” I don’t want to see you as tenants in your own land”

  6. I think you are missing the fact that a lot of these applications are false. A chef, manager, or dairy farm manager is not needed. What is wanted is a low wage waiter, farm slave or shop slave but you can’t get a visa for one of these. The skilled work visa scheme is a rort and some of these industries have a lot to answer for.

    • +1 M Howard.

      And often the poor migrant has paid a fortune to a ‘middle man’ to get taken to NZ to be exploited.

      This rout needs to be shut down for everyones sake.

      I heard they did try to run a case for human trafficking for some fruit pickers being exploited but not sure what happened.

      Far from adding to skills shortages we seem to be importing in people with false applications, work experience and health issues.

  7. Retail supervisor? What a joke. The MBIE has a special unit that investigates businesses that have been set up simply to game the PR points system, because the practice is widespread.

  8. Does anyone on here want to discuss how the left should stand up for immigrant worker rights? Because, you know, workers are workers and the left is supposed to be about worker’s rights.

    That is a key point that Mike Treen was trying to make:

    “Instead of using a rotating door of migrant workers to fill these gaps, there should be a more permanent solution. Migrants that have been brought here to work already should be given the right to residency. Alongside this, there should also be compulsory training and apprenticeship programmes paid for by employers so that any young person in this country who wants to can have a chance at getting these jobs as well. It is inhumane to bring hundreds of thousands of young workers to New Zealand from other countries to fill a spot in the economy only to be replaced in a few years.

    As a first step all workers currently in New Zealand must have full legal rights – including the right to change their employer which workers on essential skills visas cannot do. All workers currently in New Zealand should be given first preference to take up permanent residence if they want to.”

  9. The lies John key’s National government is promoting to target more immigrants to NZ to prop up his fake economy. This is a new govt website set up under key’s government.


    Graduates frustrated at lack of jobs

    And this….

    Bernard Hickey: Why aren’t Kiwis getting jobs?

    And then the National government has it’s govt department to move the goal posts and blatantly fudge rising unemployment figures “with a stroke of a pen”.

  10. Very good article. Nothing against immigrants as myself being one. Still remember 20 years ago having a stamp in my passport stating where I could work and for how long . It did not exactly give me much leverage in negotiations that is for sure. Also remember paying a fee for the job to be advertised at Work and Income for a week in case any locals wanted the job. No takers for the job so it became mine. We need Unions to keep working with migrants so they don’t inadvertently become pawns in the race to the bottom of wages and work conditions. So yes to hire migrant workers if needed, but employers need to pay a Living Wage . And yes to implement a structure where wages are linked to a structure based on inflation, medium wages etc . Would be interesting to see a system where the CEO of a company could only be paid a certain amount of pay that is linked to the lowest paid workers in the same company. Say if the lowest paid was a cleaner on 30 000 the the CEO could only get say 300 000. So if the boss wanted half a million a year because its tough at the top then the cleaner would get 50 000 a year because its even tougher at the bottom. Good idea ?

    • “Would be interesting to see a system where the CEO of a company could only be paid a certain amount of pay that is linked to the lowest paid workers in the same company.”

      Oh, once upon a time something similar to this used to be NORMAL.

      Most of a younger or even a middle age may not even know this, but when there were set pay or award rates worked out between workers (unions representing them) and employers, there were not such huge differences between top earners and bottom earners as we have it now.

      The “normal” of today, used to be totally abnormal once (a few decades ago).

    • Would be interesting to see a system where the CEO of a company could only be paid a certain amount of pay that is linked to the lowest paid workers in the same company.

      What I’d like to see is companies being cooperatives where everyone gets a say in what everyone else is paid with an awareness of the companies books. Then we can be sure that what people are paid is actually fair.

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