Temporary migration system is broken – time for a reset with a path to residency

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Employers in the agriculture sector who are screaming for help to pick their crops deserve to suffer a bit of pain. They’ve spent years excluding local workers and creating an economic sector totally reliant on temporary migrant labour, a vulnerability which the pandemic has now realised.
These employers have used temporary migrant labour to avoid training Kiwis to do the job and paying a genuine market rate for the hard work involved.
Over the past decade, the number of working holiday visas  have increased from 20,000 to 70,000 a year. A special category of visa called the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme was created to bring in Pacific agricultural workers, and has grown from 5,000 a year to 14,500. We had another 100,000 students with the right to work and 150,000 on various other renewable work visas.
Workers from the Pacific have become more and more skilled at the work but employers continue to keep most of them on minimum wage—or less—once accomodation costs and other expenses are deducted.
Many Pacific island villages have become dependent on the regular income these visas are able to provide even if they had to return home each season. It is good that 2000 workers have been approved to return. The employer must pay their quarantine costs and at least the living wage of $22.10 an hour compared to the current minimum wage of $18.90 an hour.
The Covid crisis has exposed how dependent the New Zealand economy has become on cheap labour from across the globe. We discovered that around 300,000 workers, 15% of the workforce, were in the country on one type of temporary visa or another with the right to work. Temporary visa holders have become dominant in entire sectors of the economy from agriculture to aged care.
Many of those on working holiday visas and about half those on Recognised Seasonal Employer visas have returned home already. But at least 250,000 remain and many want to stay. The total is probably twice the number from a decade ago.
This system gave employers the power to exploit the workers dependent on them for visas, and employers used this power to suppress wages in their sectors.
Pre-Covid New Zealand might have expected to have been able to continue recycling cheap temporary labour to service of our major industries.But that system has broken into a thousand pieces, and will never be put back together until the world is free of Covid and no other pandemic threatens.
This is a good thing. It allows us to do the right thing by the people now stuck in New Zealand. Many of these workers were brought here and kept here on essential work or student visas with the false promise of one day being able to transition to permanent residency.
Instead, while the number of migrants being brought here on various temporary visas have more than doubled over the past decade the number of those being granted residency has been kept at around 40-50,000 a year. This simply increased the competition for places and Immigration New Zealandconsistently raised the bar on those seeking permanent residency.
The Jacinda Ardern-led government in 2017 imposed a radical cut to the number of people granted permanent residence. It went from 47,682 to 37,947 in the year from June 2017 to June 2018 and dropped further to 34,992 for the September 2019 year – a ten year low.
This simply broke the back of any coherent policy being able to be applied. The points needed to gain residency are now off the charts and nurses, teachers and other professionals can’t qualify.
The only way to fix the broken system is to grant those who have made New Zealand their home a pathway to residency. This could begin with everyone on a visa who has worked here five years or more an immediate offer of residency. They also don’t need language tests that most Kiwis wouldn’t pass. This could then be extended to other categories who want to stay but could be offered incentives to earn useful points by studying particular subjects or working in particular occupations or regions.
The previous National Government from 2014-17 under John Key and Bill English, implemented a proposal for a group of workers in the South Island as a one-off pathway to residency for around 4,000 temporary migrant workers and their families.
In the words of the then Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse:
“Many of these migrants are already well settled in New Zealand and make a valuable contribution to their communities.”
”[The proposal] will also enable employers to retain an experienced workforce that has helped meet genuine regional labour market needs.”
All workers in New Zealand who want to make New Zealand their home should have the opportunity to do so.
This is a humane and sensible proposal in the post-Covid world that meets the needs of the workers.Many bosses will be thrilled to be able to keep the workers they have invested time and money into training, even without the workers being kept in a  bonded relationship. The workers will be freed from dependency on a single employer and will be able to  stand up for their rights as full and equal members of New Zealand society. The union movement will have up to 300,000 more potential members who can join the fight for equality, fairness and justice in their new home.
Fixing this issue is one of the most important issues before the union movement today. We have an opportunity to seize the once in a generation chance to use the Covid crisis to bring an end to the abusive system of mass temporary work migration. If we succeed it will be a huge benefit to working people as a whole.
The way to achieve this goal is to provide permanent residency to all those currently living and working in New Zealand who have made New Zealand their home and want to stay.
The same principle should be applied to those stuck overseas who have also made New Zealand their home before going overseas and have been stuck there since Covid hit. They should be treated as fellow Kiwis with the right to return and not be forced to wait at the back of the queue.
Implementing such a policy will end once and for all the disgraceful over-reliance on workers forced to come to New Zealand on temporary visas and then trapped in exploitative bondage to an employer. Several hundred thousand workers will then be free to join the fight for a new New Zealand that cares for all its residents with respect and dignity.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Bonded migrant labour is the new slavery of the 21st Century.

    In an age where trade deals are being signed allowing the seamless free flow of capital and investment across borders and around the globe. Human labour and human beings are being treated as a commodity trapped and controlled to the nth degree.

    As the old union saying goes, ‘An injury to one is an injury to all’

    Having this massive pool of vulnerable migrant labour available to them that in normal (pre covid) times, was turned on and off like a tap allowed employers to keep wages down for all New Zealand workers.

    Thank you Michael Treen. For your well reasoned and factual, and most of all, for your humane call for justice for migrant workers and the end of our exploitative and unfair national migrant worker scheme. Your essay needs to be shared far and wide inside the union movement until the whole organised workforce embrace the campaign for migrant worker justice as their campaign. In particular the CTU the overarching body of the New Zealand union movement and their affiliates need to come out in support of the campaign for a path to residency for these workers.

    If these working people are good enough to work beside us, then they they are good enough to live beside us. And should have the right to.

    Kia kaha, kaimahi tunga

    • Yes indeed. The globalised system is always geared to the lowest financial cost, whilst ramping up the social and environmental costs but not accounting for them.

      We have reached the point that if the true cost of food were reflected in the price there would be a revolution.

      The ‘controllers’ can’t allow that to happen, so will think of some new scam to keep food just-affordable for a little while longer.

      That said, food is becoming unaffordable for many in ‘the land of plenty’.

    • /agree @Mike Treen and Pat O’Dea.

      Imagine too how your average New Zealander would feel if the Rugby Union decided to change the rules of the game halfway through a match. Bloody outrage no doubt.
      Yet we tolerate our government and its civil service not just feeding people ‘misinformation’ or little inexactitudes, but DISinformation – all otherwise known as LIES! And they do so with impunity. I wouldn’t mind quite so much if we weren’t pretending to be better than other parts of the world – especially under more authoritarian regimes. The end result for the exploited can be much the same.
      Indeed there are places in the world (such as Oman even) where an immigrant can have a better life in terms of income and treatment than some of the people in our own workforce, as they put up with things like squalid accommodation, hot-bunking and outright racial prejudice.
      Ask a lot of immigrants about how they feel about their circumstances and more likely than not (when not in fear of being tipped out of the country if they make a fuss), they’ll tell you “it’s all about the money”.

      Little old New Zealand that punches above its weight signed up to the very same sorts of practices that have enabled exploitation and the transference of skills to an immigrant population. And we then dress it up as “best practice” and use all sorts of other slogans and spin to justify it all. AND THEN blame the immigrant.

      Ministers will “pull various levers”, feign concern when certain incidents of exploitation are uncovered by media; and the civil service will spring into action when things get a bit embarrassing – sometimes ONLY when things become a bit embarrassing. Doesn’t alter the fact that they LIED and changed the rules of the game half-way through it. Doesn’t alter the fact that it’s all been part of a system they devised, are responsible for, and put in place.

      It’s no different from some of the sort of shit that’s been going on at OT, or MSD or one or two other places.
      The spin and bullshit never ceases to amaze me – and it seems to have convinced a lot of people including those that claim to be of the ‘Left’.
      As you say @Pat “If these working people are good enough to work beside us, then they they are good enough to live beside us”, and they have the same expectation we all do – not to be bullshitted to by the government and its civil service. I spent a fair bit of my working life in it – it definitely got worse over time, especially since the neo-liberal religion took hold and currently there’s not much sign of it improving under this kind and transformational government.

  2. Nope it’s a joke when migrant workers are paid more than domestic workers for the same work!

    https://thedailyblog.co.nz/2020/11/29/wait-what-migrant-workers-paid-living-wage-but-actual-nz-workers-not-paid-a-living-wage/

    We already don’t have enough homes, schools, doctors, nurses, aged care facilities and so forth for Kiwis born in NZ who are now second class citizens to migrants aka the wages above.

    Sad that unions are taking the money from the migrant explosion in NZ which is helping keep workers conditions poor in NZ, while ignoring the growing poverty of Kiwis born in NZ and poorer and poorer wage conditions in NZ caused by employers having unlimited international supply of workers happy to work 60 hours (until getting permanent residency of course) and poorly run businesses, coming to NZ not for work, but to get the free permanent residency and lucrative social benefits for their families.

    Also ending badly and bringing (more) crime and dysfunction to NZ as both workers and employers keep getting worse and cash/laundering economy is booming.

    Elizabeth Zhong homicide: Mystery overseas backers funded floundering businesses
    https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/300172133/elizabeth-zhong-homicide-mystery-overseas-backers-funded-floundering-businesses

    Local businesses can’t compete with the below people who are crooks, buying up NZ businesses and running them with illegal labour and not paying taxes here.

    Thai restaurateurs’ $4.4m tax dodge alleged in hiding cash sales
    https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/112450716/thai-restaurateurs-44m-tax-dodge-alleged-in-hiding-cash-sales

    Migrant worker speaks out against exploitation at rural Reporoa holiday park
    https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/118329341/migrant-worker-speaks-out-against-exploitation-at-rural-reporoa-holiday-park

    Cigarette smuggling case: Defendants keep names secret to protect children, employees
    https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/115014183/cigarette-smuggling-case-defendants-keep-names-secret-to-protect-children-employees

    Auckland building boss charged with fraud after investigation into illegal labour
    https://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=12005146

  3. In Queenstown they can’t retain their existing migrant workers with the housing affordability shortages and wages that don’t relate so they just recruit more chefs, restaurant supervisors, concierges and housekeepers (and all their dependants) from overseas https://www.odt.co.nz/regions/queenstown/hospitality-work-visa-changes-welcomed…meanwhile the former employee temp workers flood off into other towns around NZ.

    Funny enough bringing more ‘service’ migrants into Queenstown where development is on the luxury side means that there is huge demand for housing to all the ‘service’ people to cater to the rich people…

    ’30 people in 7-person space’: Queenstown rental chaos
    https://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/30-people-in-7-person-space-queenstown-rental-chaos/B3DPS52LIHZ23R4CRN4VTJTKTM/

    Also a hotspot for…

    “Queenstown has cemented its place as Otago’s capital of tobacco and illicit drug seizures from international arrivals.
    Data supplied by the New Zealand Customs Service show there have been 44 seizures of cannabis, methamphetamine, cocaine or excess tobacco at Queenstown Airport since 2015, compared with just one at Dunedin Airport over the same period.”

  4. If employers took the money they’re putting into the quarantine system and use it to top up wages they could pay their workers $30/hr. This would probably be enough to produce a positive reaction from the labour market – market forces of course, being something big employers seem to keen to avoid.

    My calculations are based on a quarantine fee of over $4000 and an expectation of a 3 month harvest season working for 40 hours a week. I may be out on some of these assumptions but the point is that big employers are pritoritising wage suppression over everything else – including their own profits in 2020.

    I expect this is class issue where employers don’t want to betray their own class by giving the working class a proper wage. The long term result of doing this in 2020 is that workers throughout the country could justify demands for decent wages and the employer class has just spent the last 35 years working to them down to the pathetic levels they are now.

    • $30 per hour is a fair wage for picking fruit.
      In 2003, it was $25 per hour, now it is typically around minimum wage.
      And accommodation and survival costs have gone through the roof.
      There is too much inequity between the owners of capital and labour.
      The Unions should be addressing this.

  5. As soon as they got residency, they would migrate to the cities, get welfare and cease to be crop pickers.

    What we *really* need to do is mobilize and motivate our unemployed by removing the financial disincentives in the current welfare system against temporary work.

    • I don’t agree with your welfare comment, but you are correct that the only way to keep people in those crap jobs is to essentially keep them as “bonded servants”. Giving residency won’t solve anything, only make matters worse.

      If cheap labour wasn’t available then wages and conditions would improve providing a good incentive to work.

  6. When I was growing up, MPs represented NZers to some extent – now all they care about is cheap unskilled migrants and scumbag employers. I’m over them.

  7. I can confirm being close to the horticultural industry for many years that the conditions and wages of the workers in this sector had stagnated for years from the eighties to the nineties.
    Following our acceleration into overseas export markets quality control became more and more rigorous and the money to be made from contract picking became less and less as growers slashed costs to compete with the likes of Chile and South Africa.
    Contract bin rates for workers were frozen for more than a decade.
    From the nineties onward the local workforce slowly but steadily deserted the orchards, vineyards, and vegetable patches owing to appalling hourly rates tied to piece rates.
    Instead of attempting to stem the flow by paying more growers conned the government into the RSE scheme and have blamed Kiwi workers for being lazy ever since.
    Orchards have prospered and expanded ever since to the point now where growers cry about fruit rotting on the vine unless we open the borders.
    Having a conveyor belt of compliant desperate backpackers, migrants from developing countries and marginalised overseas students delivered to your farm is truly modern day slavery.
    Some of these growers should be left to rot on the vine.

    • I don’t agree with your welfare comment, but you are correct that the only way to keep people in those crap jobs is to essentially keep them as “bonded servants”. Giving residency won’t solve anything, only make matters worse.

      If cheap labour wasn’t available then wages and conditions would improve providing a good incentive to work.

  8. I can confirm being close to the horticultural industry for many years that the conditions and wages of the workers in this sector had stagnated for years from the eighties to the nineties.
    Following our acceleration into overseas export markets quality control became more and more rigorous and the money to be made from contract picking became less and less as growers slashed costs to compete with the likes of Chile and South Africa.
    Contract bin rates for workers were frozen for more than a decade.
    From the nineties onward the local workforce slowly but steadily deserted the orchards, vineyards, and vegetable patches owing to appalling hourly rates tied to piece rates.
    Instead of attempting to stem the flow by paying more growers conned the government into the RSE scheme and have blamed Kiwi workers for being lazy ever since.
    Orchards have prospered and expanded ever since to the point now where growers cry about fruit rotting on the vine unless we open the borders.
    Having a conveyor belt of compliant desperate backpackers, migrants from developing countries and marginalised overseas students delivered to your farm is truly modern day slavery.
    Some of these growers should be left to rot on the vine.

  9. The acting government has implemented the will of the exploiting business sector and thereby destabilsied the entire NZ economy e.g. housing, infrastructure, schooling, RMA etc. Its a veneer of goverment, it’s a patsy for big business.

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