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An epidemic notice has been issued under the Epidemic Preparedness Act 2006, in effect from Thursday 2 April 2020. This means temporary visa holders whose visas were due to expire between 1 April 2020 and 9 July 2020, will receive an automatic visa extension.

During June the Government opened up consultation on proposed changes to post-study work visa categories. Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway intends that the proposed changes will help eliminate or reduce migrant exploitation and will encourage international students to study higher quality courses and courses which will lead to employment roles in the areas which New Zealand needs.

If introduced, the proposed changes would see the removal of the post-study employer-assisted 2 year work visa and the introduction of a three-year post-study open work visa for degree level 7 and higher qualifications. All students studying below Level 7 would only be entitled to a one-year post-study open work visa and only if their qualification required at least 2 years of study. In addition, visa eligibility for accompanying families of students would be tightened with only partners and children of students studying level 8 or 9 qualifications in an area of long term skill shortage being entitled to partner work, and dependent child student, visas.

The Government is right to focus on student worker and migrant exploitation as such exploitation is now endemic in New Zealand – however the proposed changes, in our view, would do little to remedy this situation. The pathway many international students take to study in New Zealand is fraught with exploitation, largely due to dishonest Education Agents not acting in the best interests of their student clients and misleading students as to their course and future visa entitlements. Agents often enrol students in low level and inappropriate courses, and at particular institutions, based on the commissions they can earn and with little regard to the student’s best interests and long term future. This is where many problems begin and the Government must now look closely at requiring all student visa advisers to be licensed and regulated by the Immigration Advisers Authority.

Once a student has completed their course and gained their post-study work visa, they currently face the challenge of obtaining employment relevant to their qualification within a 12 month period. For many such visa holders, securing relevant employment can also create a pathway to residency. This pressure to find suitable employment to extend their visa can often lead to a person being forced to take up an employment role on terms dictated by the employer and which have little regard to New Zealand employment law. Currently, the only practical option for a migrant worker in an exploitative situation like this is to find new employment and then to change their visa to this new employment. However, the reality is that very often in these situations the visa holder is unable to find new employment and has no choice but to remain being exploited in their existing role. Additionally, migrants are often fearful of reporting unscrupulous employers to Immigration New Zealand as this will directly impact their work situation and can lead to losing their job and work visa and place them in a very difficult situation having no job and no visa to allow work. These people and their families have invested many tens of thousands of dollars in their education in New Zealand and need to work to repay this debt.

If the Government is serious about stamping out migrant exploitation it must introduce more effective processes to identify exploitative employers and take proactive action against these employers. A constructive first step would be to introduce a suitable interim “visa solution” for visa holders who were being exploited so they can be more willing to speak out and to provide key employer information without having the worry of their own visa situation to protect.

While the proposal for a 3 year open work visa after graduation will take initial pressure off the requirement to obtain employment for visa purposes the potential effect will be that many of these visa holders will resort to self-employment (eg; Uber drivers) and undertaking cash work as there is no immediate compunction on them to enter into lawful, documented, employment. In fact there is a real prospect that their visa situation will directly lead to greater exploitation due to the lack of oversight of what they will be doing and what any employer is requiring of them.

The pressure will go on again when it comes to the end of the open work visa term when the visa holder does require a particular employment role to support a new work visa or a residence application. Due to the extended passing of time to get to this juncture the likelihood is that these people will be subjected to, and open to, a much greater level of potential exploitation that what otherwise would be the case.

In addition the 3 year work visa will provide the time and opportunity for visa holders to pursue other avenues to stay in New Zealand including establishing their own businesses and forming partnership relationships, and to focus on these avenues to obtain residence. We do not believe these outcomes provide the best benefit to New Zealand and do not make use of their New Zealand qualifications.

Our view is that is that consideration should be given to the introduction of a work-to-residence pathway for student graduates. This could work similar to the existing WTR schemes whereby an applicant must work in a certain job for 2 years and can then directly apply for residence. This scheme would operate like an internship and would encourage both graduate students and employers to invest in a longer term employment relationship – and would see graduate students appropriately motivated to progress their careers rather than sitting around for 3 years until they have to do something.

It would be naive to believe that many international students coming to study here are not significantly motivated by the prospect of working in New Zealand and gaining residence in the future. Of the two main student markets, India and China, the vast majority choose New Zealand to study because of the prospect to pathway to residence. This motivation of immigration policy settings cannot be downplayed or ignored as without it the international education industry, New Zealand’s 5th biggest export earner,  will stall and likely retreat.

The reality of this situation must be accepted, and students should be encouraged by policy settings to study in the courses that will lead to employment in roles which will benefit New Zealand and which will deliver the residence outcome to the student. Any changes to the existing post-study visas should therefore seek to protect students from exploitation, whilst enabling and pro-actively encouraging them to seek career focused employment roles which are in demand in New Zealand and which can advance their future residence eligibility. This begins with the student choosing better-quality and focused courses which can then lead to better quality student outcomes and employment prospects.

There is nothing at all wrong with the existence of a study-to-residence pathway. Such a pathway enables relatively young, New Zealand qualified people who have good English and local friends and connections, and who have already assimilated to New Zealand, to build upon this very sound foundation and to become the New Zealanders of the future. We just need the immigration settings that will first attract the students we want, and which will protect them from exploitation, and then encourage them to stay and to provide the skills New Zealand needs so we can realise this future together. Our view is that the proposed policy changes correctly identify the issues but are very much formulated in reaction to the current situation and do not recognise the consequences of what the changes will promulgate. Our preference is for more forward thinking and constructive policies that will deliver the preferred long term outcomes for the benefit of New Zealand, and of the student.

Many migrants initially come to New Zealand as International students and follow what we call the study pathway to residence. The main source countries for these international students being China and India.

In most cases the applicant’s intention is to obtain skilled employment and obtain residence through the skilled migrant category, but it must be remembered that this is the potential end result of a process that starts with study and the successful completion of the applicant’s studies is fundamental to provide the foundation of their pathway to residence.

Unfortunately for some, and in our opinion far too many, they fall foul to mostly avoidable issues during the course of their studies that can have a material and prejudicial affect for their ability to progress with their pathway and achieve the desired residence outcome.

An individual must complete the course for which they hold their student visa. The course name and institution is written on their visa as part of the conditions of the visa, they may also include eligibility to work whilst studying. If a person changes their course and or institution they must change their visa to reflect the new situation. If they do not change their visa then at the end of their studies, even if successfully completed, if they do not hold a visa to match the qualification they have been awarded they will not be eligible for a Post-study open work visa (also known as the graduate job search work visa) and they would not be able to use the qualification to claim points in supporting a skilled migrant residence application in the future.

Holders of student visas must consider that in being granted their visa INZ have assessed them as being a genuine student and this is consequently the only purpose for which they have been granted entry to New Zealand. The expectation is that they will attend all their classes and attain the appropriate grades to successfully complete their course.

Whilst students may be granted work conditions to their visa to allow them to work, a maximum of 20 hours during semesters and fulltime only during official study breaks, these conditions are a trusted privilege to gain local work experience, but not to the detriment of their academic work. During a future residence application it is not uncommon for INZ to request a tax summary, and if an individual has worked more than they were permitted as a student this can cause a prejudicial character issue at a critical point of achieving their main goal.

If an individual fails to complete their course they do not have access to graduate work visas, and they do not have an automatic right to obtain a new student visa to retake papers and complete their qualification. This includes students who may be studying a qualification of more than 12 months in duration. If they failure to achieve the grades required to return for the second year they may struggle to obtain a visa to repeat failed papers. New Zealand education providers also have regulations which restrict students taking repeat failed papers (normally the students may be allowed to repeat failed papers only once).

Failure to complete a course coupled with poor attendance can be fatal to future plans and they may have to return home. Given the costs of studying as an international student this can be a very costly failure.

Students are encouraged to seek help as soon as possible if they are struggling with their studies so the institution can provide the appropriate support. For immigration matters always seek the guidance of a suitably experienced and qualified professional.