Government introduces significant immigration policy changes – effective 7 April 20248 Apr 2024

"These changes are the start of a more comprehensive work programme to create a smarter immigration system that manages net migration, responds to our changing economic context, attracts top talent, revitalises international education, is self-funding and sustainable, and better manages risk" – Hon Erica Stanford, Minister of Immigration. Read the full press release here.

As a consequence of concerns over unsustainable immigration levels, and the high proportion of low skilled workers coming to New Zealand under the Accredited Employer Work Visa (AEWV), the Government has introduced a number of changes which will impact on the numbers of these particular workers coming to New Zealand. These changes include a minimum English standard (equivalent to IELTS 4.0), a maximum visa duration of 3 years, a requirement for at least 3 years of relevant work experience (or a relevant qualification), and a range of requirements to evidence employers have made greater efforts to employ New Zealanders - including the need to connect with Work & Income and to explain why any New Zealand job applicants were not available, or able to be “job-trained”, to work in the role.

Immigration policy relies on the Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations (ANZSCO) to determine the skill level of any particular occupation. Skill level 1 & 2 occupations are “high-skilled” and include managers, doctors, engineers, etc. and which normally require at least a relevant degree level qualification. Skill level 3 occupations are considered “mid-skilled” and include many trade (eg; carpenter), technician and similar occupations. Skill level 4 & 5 occupations are considered “low-skilled” and include manual, clerical, service and administrative workers which generally require no, or very little, experience or qualifications. It is only these skill level 4 & 5 occupations which are caught by these policy changes. Level 4 & 5 roles on the Green List, any sector agreement residence pathway, or which are paid at $47.41 per hour, are exempt from evidencing the work experience requirement.

These changes will have the desired effect of making New Zealand a “less attractive” option for low skilled workers, primarily due to the English requirement, and also the need for the required relevant 3 years of work experience (or qualifications). New Zealand employers will also be mindful of the additional investment, requirements and time (& general hassle) now involved in employing low skilled migrant workers, and are expected to take a more considered approach before going down this path.

Anyone who has already made an AEWV visa application on or before 6 April will have their application processed under the previous policy settings and will not be impacted by these changes.

The shorter visa duration on offer should also, hopefully, make it “unviable” for migrants to pay large sums of money to exploitative intermediaries and employers for bogus job offers.

While the high net migration numbers were already set to begin a downward trend (as the peak was in March 2023) these changes will support this trend, although the impact will not be seen for another 3-4 months.

The Government has also largely rescinded the previous Government’s announcement made last September to introduce a number of new roles onto the Construction and Infrastructure Sector Agreement and onto the Green List – which provides residence pathways for particular in-demand occupations. Instead, the following roles have now been added to the Green List Tier 1 (for straight-to-residence) – Aviation Engineer, Aircraft Maintenance Engineer, Naval Architect, Mechanical Engineering Technician and ICT Database and Systems Administrators (secondary school teachers were added to the Tier 1 list last week). Corrections Officer has been added, as had been previously announced, to the Green List Tier 2 which allows for residence after 2 years of working in the role.

There will be understandable disappointment from those migrant workers who are already working in roles that had been expected to be added to the Green List, and who had relocated to New Zealand on this basis. It is clear the Government is having a forward-looking rethink about the Green List and what role it has in the application of immigration policy settings in the future and, hopefully, this can be clarified in the near future.

The Minister has announced the closure of new applications for work to residence visas for bus and truck drivers under the Transport Sector Agreement on the basis there are now sufficient drivers available. Drivers who already hold, or have already applied for, AEWVs will not be impacted and can still be eligible for a Transport Work to Residence visa.

Accredited employers are also the focus of the announced changes. Employers must now take reasonable steps to ensure any migrant worker meets the required qualification and skill requirements for their employment. Employers must also now notify Immigration NZ (INZ) within 10 working days of an AEWV holder leaving their employment. This is also a timely reminder that employers are already obligated to similarly inform INZ of any changes in the key people involved in any hiring decisions.

New penalties, including instant fines and accreditation suspension/cancellation, have now been introduced for employers for breaches of employer accreditation regulations. Such breaches include (among others) employers not notifying INZ when an AEWV holder leaves their employment, and employing a worker without the required work rights.

Most of the 30,000+ INZ accredited employers will need to apply for the renewal of their accreditation later this year. These employers need to be very mindful that, as part of this renewal application process, INZ is expected to request evidence of their business financial standing, and whether they have met their original accreditation obligations. These obligations include the completion of the Employment NZ employer and employee modules, and the provision of settlement information to the migrant worker within the first 30 days of their employment.

These changes signal the Government’s purposeful intent to make decisions in the long-term interests of New Zealand, and continues moves to combat migrant exploitation. However, the Government must remain mindful that in order to attract the “top talent” it is really wanting, it is the resident visa settings, and the pathways to residence, which are the key drivers, and these must remain very clear, consistent and reliable for these migrants to plan ahead for their New Zealand relocation.

There is significant detailed policy informing the above highlighted changes so please do not hesitate to contact a Pathways® licensed immigration adviser to answer your queries at 0508PATHWAYS or [email protected].