Getting the migration reset right
For many years, we have convinced ourselves that New Zealand is running a cutting edge skills-based migration system. As Maxim highlighted just before COVID-19 changed the world, we have been fooling ourselves. We were really running whole parts of our economy on an unlimited supply of low wage migrant workers, and in doing so harming not only ourselves but also migrants in the process.
Over the last year the fruit of our temporary migration system has become increasingly apparent. Reports emerged drawing our attention to the poor but expensive living conditions of RSE workers. Then there were repeated reports of unscrupulous employers taking advantage of vulnerable migrant workers, not paying their wages, or using their visa status to stop them going to the labour inspector or press.
Over time, employers became dependent on the increasing numbers of temporary workers, even expanding their operations in anticipation of the dream combination of high output, low wage workers continuing.
The reality is that New Zealand has used a temporary migration band-aid to fix long-term labour market and structural issues for decades. It started well (as many policy choices do) in the early 1990s, with temporary visas being issued to assist with local labour market shortages. If there were not enough people to pick apples in Hawke’s Bay or plant or prune trees on the East Coast, well we could bring in a temporary workforce to assist. By 2020, as skill shortages continued, we ended up in a situation where on any given day we had a temporary visa workforce of around 200,000 people. Over time, employers became dependent on the increasing numbers of temporary workers, even expanding their operations in anticipation of the dream combination of high output, low wage workers continuing.
However, over the last year, we have experienced the lowest numbers of migrant arrivals since 1986 (25 years), and the lowest numbers for migrant departures since 1969, (a 52 year time span). It short COVID-19 has thrown the fragility of the system into sharp relief. So it is with some relief we see the Government moving to reset the migration system. The Productivity Commission has been given the task of reviewing the system and its settings and this is appropriate.
We need to ask ourselves what a real version of manaakitanga would look like in the migration context, rather than just a nice sounding platitude plastered on Immigration New Zealand’s website.
There are many facets that this review must grapple with, including Māori involvement in migration decisions, how we treat people who migrate here, and how we can offer long-term pathways to belonging for the lower skilled workers we still need. In our report, for example, we highlighted that for too long Māori voices have been neglected in the policy debate. We need to ask ourselves what a real version of manaakitanga would look like in the migration context, rather than just a nice sounding platitude plastered on Immigration New Zealand’s website. We need to shift our emphasis to long-term migration solutions linked to welcoming well. Rather than being a short term resource to be plundered, genuinely needed low-skilled migrants should be treated with dignity and offered a chance to belong as part of our communities. We need our migration system to link to our labour relations and training regimes.
All this will require a lot of restructuring, retraining, and forward planning, but it’s work that is decades overdue and shouldn’t be delayed any further.go back