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The New Zealand Government’s new KiwiBuild scheme will see changes to immigration settings in order to help the construction and housing sector to attract overseas skilled workers.

The government’s response to New Zealand’s shortage of affordable housing is the new KiwiBuild scheme which will see the construction of 100,000 starter homes for first home buyers over the next ten years, with half of those new houses earmarked for the Auckland region.

The Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) projected in late 2017 that there could be a potential shortfall of approximately 30,000 workers to meet increasing demand in housing and infrastructure, with this number likely to rise as a result of the KiwiBuild initiative. The shortage affects all skills categories in the construction sector but particular growth is expected in the demand for plumbers, electricians, builders, civil engineers and project managers.

The proposed changes, which are expected to come in to force late 2018 or early 2019, include three key components.

The first is a dedicated KiwiBuild Skills Shortage List. This list will identify specific roles for which the immigration process will be streamlined. The list will expand on the innovations introduced in the Canterbury Skills Shortage List, which was brought in after the Christchurch earthquake to help with the city’s rebuild.

For roles included on the KiwiBuild Skills Shortage List, an employer may not need to prove to Immigration New Zealand that they have made a genuine attempt to employ a New Zealand citizen or resident visa holder for the position.

The second component of the change will provide advantages for companies who have proven standards as good employers in the construction sector. Employer accreditation or pre-approval should see faster processing and greater simplicity in visa applications.

Employers will be able to benefit from this streamlined process if they reach high standards of health and safety, have good business practices and can demonstrate good employment conditions, pay, training, skills development and pastoral care.

For employers who comply with the pre-approval criteria this will offer greater opportunities to plan their workforce and hire overseas workers to meet the expected demand.

During periods of skills shortage there is often concern around the risk of exploitation of migrant workers through lower wages and poor working conditions. The third component of the proposed changes will put in place steps to minimise that risk by introducing specific requirements for labour hire companies, establishing a mandatory accreditation scheme to cover third party arrangements.

This Immigration New Zealand accreditation is likely to require labour hire companies to pay workers at least the market rate and offer terms and conditions equivalent to the hire company’s other employees, as well as ensuring equity across all employees’ terms and conditions. The accreditation may also see hire companies having to meet the upfront costs of worker recruitment.

Hire companies will also likely be responsible for ensuring that contracted third parties uphold good practices in the workplace.  Failure to comply with this and any of the new proposed changes could mean that Immigration New Zealand could cancel the hire company’s accreditation and the benefits that go with it.

The Government may also consider the option that work visas issued under the KiwiBuild Skills Shortage list may have more flexible conditions and could, for example, require the worker just to work in their specific role and not restrict the worker to a particular employer or location.

Recruiting to meet periods of high demand and maintaining legal and ethical obligations in employing migrant staff can be complex. We recommend that employers begin this process with the benefit of professional advice and assistance on visa matters from an experienced Licenced Immigration Adviser or Immigration Lawyer.

The Pathways New Zealand team will be monitoring progress on these proposals and will confirm the final details of the changes once they are announced.

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.

A major shake up of essential skills work visa instructions is due to affect thousands of current work visa holders and their employers from the end of August.

The government has just confirmed the main details of the changes to essential skills work visa instructions which will be effective from 28 August. The changes will mostly affect those in lower skilled roles and will now limited the period of time they can remain in New Zealand before an enforced stand-down period and restricting their ability to support partnership and dependent visa applications.

Under the new rules, similarly to the SMC changes salary bands have been introduced that will determine whether an applicant is considered Low, Mid or Higher Skilled. The salary band’s are set based upon national median earnings.

  • Higher skilled individuals can be working in an ANZSCO occupation regardless of ANZSCO skills level and must have a minimum salary of more than $35.24ph and may be issued a work visa for up to 5 years in duration.
  • Mid-Skilled individuals  only applies to ANZSCO occupations skill level 1,2 and 3 with a salary of between $19.99 and $35.24ph, they be granted a work visa up to 3 years in duration.
  • Lower skilled individuals applies to ANZSCO occupations skill level 1,2 and 3 with a salary less than $19.99ph and ANZSCO occupations skill level 4 and 5 with a salary under $35.24, they will be granted a work visa up to 1 year in duration.

Changes to Lower Skilled Work Visa Holders

There are two significant changes that will affect lower skilled work visa holders.

  • They will only be able to work for a maximum of 3 years in lower skilled roles before they are required to spend 12 months outside of New Zealand before they can be granted a further lower skilled work visa.
  • They will no longer be able to support partnership work visas nor student visas for dependents as domestic students. Accompanying family members will be required to be eligible in their own right for essential skills or fee paying student respectively.  They will be able to access short term visitor visas.

Transitional instructions for those already in New Zealand holding Work Visas

A transitional policy has been put in place to protect those people and their families who are already in New Zealand and hold work visas that will be classified as lower skilled.

  • The 3 year period will not be retrospectively applied. It will begin from the time the next lower skilled visa is issued.
  • Accompanying family members already in New Zealand will be eligible for visas that have the same rights and conditions as those they currently hold and when the changes are implemented for the period of time that the main applicant remains lawfully in New Zealand. This means accompanying partners who hold work visas will be eligible for further partnership work visas for up to a further 3 years, and accompanying dependents  student visas with domestic student for the same period.
Further Review of Policy

A further review of the policy along with associated graduate work visa policy will take place later this year. It has been indicated that the review will look into whether there is a need for more specific regional and/or industry sector application of policy to recognise the variances that exist. The review will also attempt to better classify those roles that exist but do not have a clear ANZSCO occupation and how these should be treated to fit in the salary matrix. There will also be a review of graduate work visa instructions in respect to the ability of these visa holders to support accompanying family members.

It is always highly recommended professional advice is obtained from a licensed immigration adviser to best determine how these or any other policy changes may affect a person’s current immigration situation and future visa pathways.