Stuart Nash reading Kris Faafoi's speech to an invited Beehive audience last night

The Government’s promised “setting the scene” speech on immigration last night offered little that was new.

Despite that, Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi’s office had invited a wide range of business and sector group lobbyists and representatives to the Beehive for the speech.

As it turned out, Faafoi fell ill, and the speech had to delivered by Economic Development Minister Stuart Nash.

That meant that when journalists pressed him for the details missing from the speech, the best he could do was say he would refer the question to Faafoi.

What was clear was that the Government wants the Productivity Commission to give it the justification to crack down on temporary visas. The Commission is conducting an inquiry into immigration and has been specifically tasked by Finance Minister Grant Robertson with looking at how immigration impacts the labour market.

Temporary visas will be at the heart of this.

They are work visas that have a limited life span but during which the holder can work and apply for permanent residence.

That, however, is a slow process, with Immigration New Zealand currently processing only around 90 applications for permanent residence a week.

Because of that, the system is clogged up with between 200,000 and 300,000 visa holders, and holders can apply for any number of extensions to their visas while they wait for their ultimate residence decision.

While they wait, many find employment in low wage jobs like the hospitality and tourism sector, cab driving, horticulture and farm work and service industries like cleaning and healthcare.

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“Temporary work visa holders make up almost 5 per cent of New Zealand’s labour force,” said Nash.

“That is the highest share – by a significant margin – compared to other OECD countries. Poland is next with almost 4 per cent. 

“Increasingly, these temporary workers are at lower skill levels – nearly half of all Essential Skills visa approvals in 2019 were at the two lowest skill levels.

“This means businesses have been able to rely on lower-skilled labour and suppress wages rather than investing capital in productivity-enhancing plant and machinery, or employing and upskilling New Zealanders into work.”

Nash said that the OECD had said, “the employer-assisted temporary work visa system is not limiting recruitment of migrants to resolving genuine skills and labour shortages, is attracting too many low-skilled migrants and maybe weakening incentives for employers to employ and train New Zealanders.’

“This has limited our ability to create jobs and improve productivity,” he said.

But the Government is offering over 200 people, representing high-value international investment interests, to come to New Zealand over the next 12 months to conduct due diligence and transact the sort of deals “we know will play an important role in supporting New Zealand economic recovery from COVID-19.”

“We are also looking at other ways to attract people wanting to make large, long-term investments in business and jobs here that will contribute to New Zealand’s economic recovery. And I hope to have more to say on that in due course,” he said.

But Nash made it clear the Government wants to see the temporary visa workers replaced by New Zealanders.

“What we have done with industries that have employed a lot of those workers is ask them to come up with work plans that will allow them to better target New Zealanders.

He cited his own experience as Minister of Fisheries in the previous term of the Labour-led Government.

He negotiated quid pro quo with the industry, which allowed for the migration of some Russian fishers.

“What we said is that we will let you have this first cohort but what we expect to see is an industry development plan,” he said.

“We expect you to go out to the workforce; we expect you to sell the benefits of this job; we expect you to pay good wages; we expect you to put in place a plan that will be attractive to local Kiwis because of what’s happened in the past in a number of industries who haven’t gone out or haven’t even considered Kiwis in any way, shape or form, is that they have become so reliant on international migrant workers, there’s been no attempt whatsoever to go out and engage with Kiwis.”

But what was missing from last night’s speech was how the Government proposes to transition to the new Kiwis-first labour market.

Government officials have already admitted to a Select Committee that the 2400 visas allocated to Recognised Season Employer (RSE) Pacific Island workers to harvest fruit will not be enough this year.

There were 10,500 in the country at the peak of the 2019 season.

National’s immigration spokesperson, Erica Stanford, says this shortage will mean fruit will be left to rot on the ground.

But Nash said the limit on these visas was because of the limit on the number of places in managed Isolation and Quarantine (MIQ).

A similar argument has been applied to dairy farmworkers, but DairyNZ is expected to meet primary Industries Minister Damien O’Connor later this week to discuss that.

As they left the Beehive, those who had come expecting to hear a definitive immigration speech made it clear they were disappointed.

Some tended to agree with one journalist who had asked Nash whether it was simply another Government announcement that an announcement would be made sometime in the future.

Instead, what the speech seemed intended to do was to be another blow against low wages.

They have already been targeted with the Fair Pay Agreements, and the crackdown on temporary visa holders doing relatively unskilled work appears to be another element of that.

Nash set out how this might be achieved in one of his own portfolios, tourism.

“In hospitality and tourism, there is a perception that it’s a low skill, low wage dead-end role,” he said.

“We know it’s different, certainly in a lot of tourism businesses.

“But we have to translate that aspiration into reality.”

But someone still has to sweep the floor.

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