Migrant workers make an invaluable contribution to the aged care sector. According to the most recent Aged Residential Care Industry Profile, released by the New Zealand Aged Care Association (NZACA), 21% of staff directly employed by NZACA members are in New Zealand on a visa. The largest national body for the aged residential care industry, representing 93% of the beds in the sector, NZACA have also stressed the ongoing importance of migrant workers to the industry. This will be especially the case as the New Zealand population continues to age.

However, figures released by Immigration New Zealand (INZ), suggest that there may not be enough migrant workers to meet the continuing needs of the aged care industry. Visa applications from migrants employed in this sector (or who have received an offer of employment in this sector), are on the decline. Immigration policy changes implemented in the past few years, and further recently announced changes to work visa arrangements, are also likely to affect the sector’s long-term ability to attract and retain its migrant workers.  

Decline in visa applications

Visa application data, made available on the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment (MBIE) website, shows that in the last immigration financial year (ending 30 June 2019), INZ received 116 work visa applications, and 16 residence visa applications for the ANZSCO occupation of Residential Care Officer. This is down from 143 work visa applications and 44 residence visa applications, the previous year.

 The data shows a similar decline in visa applications for several ANZSCO occupations relevant to the aged care sector. Work visa applications for the occupation of Aged or Disabled Carer have dropped since the end of the 2017/2018 financial year, going from 1342 total applications, to 1071 the following year. Personal Care Assistant work visas have seen a similar drop from 733, to 656 in the same period, and Nursing Support Workers have reduced from 332 to 289.

The present situation – visa processes currently in effect

 The decline in applications may reflect the reduced stability of the Essential Skills work visa, due to requirements in effect since 28 August 2017. ‘Lower-skilled’ workers (currently defined as those with occupations of ANZSCO Skill Level 4 or 5, or those whose income falls short of the remuneration threshold) are subject to a stand-down period. Every three years, these visa holders must leave the country for a twelve-month period, before they are eligible for another Essential Skills work visa for a lower-skilled role. These limitations will, and may already, be disruptive to not just the workforce, but to those New Zealanders who are currently receiving care. A 2019 report produced by the New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) outlines how understaffing in the sector is already having an impact on the quality of care and patient safety.

The sector has received some good news this year, with the skilled ANZSCO occupation of Registered Nurse (Aged Care) added to the Long Term Skill Shortage List. While this was welcome recognition of the dire shortage of workers in these roles, there are still unresolved issues to be faced. According to NZACA, the recent increases in nursing pay rates has meant that residential care facilities are losing their nurses to DHBs, which are able to offer as much as $6 an hour more.

The future situation – announced changes to temporary work visas

The Government’s recently announced changes to employer-assisted work visas have also brought some good news. Though many of the specific details of the new policy are yet to be determined, the changes to the temporary work visa process include:

  • The application process will be employer-led and involve 3 stages — the employer check, the job check and the worker check.
  • All employers will need to be accredited before they are able to recruit a temporary foreign worker.
  • A single new Temporary Work Visa will replace the six existing temporary work visas:
    • Essential Skills, Approval in Principle, Work to Residence – Talent (Accredited Employer), Work to Residence – Long Term Skills Shortage List Occupations, Silver Fern Job Search and Silver Fern Practical Experience.
  • Skill bands for jobs will no longer be determined using the Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations (ANZSCO). Instead, pay levels will be used to categorise jobs. Remuneration thresholds will be aligned to the median wage.
  • Lower-paid workers will once again be able to bring their families to New Zealand.
  • Labour market tests for lower-paid jobs will be strengthened.
  • Labour market tests for highly-paid (ie; NZ’s median wage) jobs in rural regions will be removed.
  • Sector agreements will be introduced in an effort to address long-term structural issues within industries, and to encourage the hiring of New Zealanders.
  • From 7 October 2019, the annual salary threshold for the Work to Residence – Talent (Accredited Employer) visa will increase from $55,000 to $79,560.

What is not changing:

  • A stand down period still applies to temporary visa holders in lower-skilled work. For each three-year period of work in New Zealand, these workers will have to leave the country for one year.
  • A visa holder will need to get a variation of conditions to change any visa conditions regarding their employer, job, or location.
  • Before a visa is granted, INZ must be satisfied that no New Zealanders are available to do the job.

A positive outcome for the aged care sector in respect of these changes is the reinstatement of lower-skilled workers’ ability to bring their partners or dependent children to New Zealand. On a less positive note, the one-year stand down period for lower-skilled workers remains, despite the campaigning of industry stakeholders.

The announced policy changes have not yet come into effect, and the Government says they are to be designed and implemented over an 18-month period. However, changes to the Work to Residence – Talent (Accredited Employer) visa process will take effect almost immediately (from 7 October 2019).

The lack of finer details and the long lead in time for implementation mean that there is continued ambiguity around the changes. This perpetuates a climate of uncertainty for current and prospective migrant workers in New Zealand, and their employers. The delay in completing a sector agreement with the aged care industry also does little to alleviate the immediate issue of severe under staffing in residential care facilities. Hopefully, Immigration New Zealand will continue working with industry to ensure the retention of migrant workers in order to meet the needs of the aged care sector, now and into the future.

If you have a question around Temporary Work Visas, please  contact Pathways NZ to speak to a licensed immigration adviser.

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