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.