A Welcome That Works | Changing migration to build our regions

By Julian Wood February 27, 2020

Over the last 30 years, New Zealand has become over reliant on temporary work migration as a way to solve long-term labour and skills shortages. We have been happy to leave recommendations around the numbers and types of visas as almost the exclusive domain of officials and regulators who fine tune the points system in response to short-term economic, political, or lobby-group needs.

This bureaucratic incrementalism has meant the use of the temporary migration visa pathway has crept from its humble beginnings of around 30,000 people in the early 1990’s to become an ongoing stock of around 170,000 people who at any one time live and work in New Zealand on a temporary visa—a nearly six-fold increase without significant public debate. Unfortunately this over-reliance on temporary work visas undermines the long-term health of our communities, economies, and even the social license of the overall immigration system itself.


A Welcome That Works

Changing migration to build our regions


We must acknowledge that there are many benefits to the status quo. It can be seen as a win-win for both New Zealand and the migrants who are enabled to temporarily come here and live and work, doing a job we want done all the while supporting themselves and often family back in their country of origin. Enabling people to work while on holiday means these visitors can stay longer and experience more of New Zealand just as New Zealanders can work in similar ways whilst overseas.

At the same time however, the ongoing and repeated use of temporary work visa solutions can have their downsides:

  • Migrants can be vulnerable and exploited due to the temporary nature of their work and their understanding of local labour laws and regulations. For some this combines with their visa being tied to a single employer;
  • Industries can become structurally dependent on temporary and low-wage workers from overseas and as a result underinvest in higher productivity solutions; and
  • In areas dependent on temporary labour there can be a dampening effect on local wages and the employment of young people and beneficiaries.

The reality is that we are in danger of creating a two-tier labour market and society whereby some, especially low-skilled migrants, are seen simply as labour supply to be discarded should we meet economic headwinds or should they get sick. We should not be satisfied with a vision of migration that reduces people to economic units that are imported simply to maximise the welfare of “New Zealand Inc.” If the events of March 15, 2019 were not already enough warning that cracks in social cohesion are emerging it is sobering to find research that reports:

  • Many New Zealanders hold a conflicting mix of ascriptive as well as inclusive views in regard to what it is to be a “true” New Zealander;
  • A geographic polarisation of views in regard to migration is emerging between urban areas and New Zealand’s regions, and
  • Even after 12 years in New Zealand many migrants feel they “do not belong” or “belong not very strongly” in New Zealand.

Alternative narratives already exist that can rebalance the economic narrative towards better long-term solutions. We need to empower our communities to welcome well, and we need to listen better to our indigenous people and make moves toward a “tika” system that embodies manaakitanga and a care for people. The alternative is that we continue to under-invest in the temporary— although often long-term— workers in our midst and they in turn under-commit to the long-term health of our communities.

In terms of our investment in those that chose to work here, New Zealand does already provide some with labour market assistance, language programs and special courses for non-principal applicants. But in considering best practice in other countries, we suggest that New Zealand should include:

  • Making use of civics courses;
  • Personalised settlement plans to ensure a wide awareness of settlement assistance options;
  • Sports programmes as a positive way for migrants and communities to interact;
  • Enabling regions to take a lead in settlement services;
  • Allowing local policy variation so that communities can allocate points toward what they see as most valuable for their community; and

Using welcoming policy as a way of refocusing on the host to ensure they can welcome well. New Zealand has in fact been running a 2-year Welcoming Communities Pilot Programme and Cabinet has agreed to expand Welcoming Communities Programme up to an additional 30 sites—a positive move that should be supported.

Overall, New Zealand needs to focus less on how many people arrive to join “New Zealand Inc” and more on how we treat the people who agree to move here. Rebalancing away from maximising the short-term gains that temporary migration can bring and toward a system that focuses on long-term outcomes is key to making this happen. Transforming New Zealand from its over-reliance on temporary migration into a country that welcomes well will improve our ability to attract and retain migrants in the long-term, strengthen our communities, and improve the sense of belonging that migrants feel in our communities and our country.

Key Recommendations

  1. Freeze the level of temporary work visa approvals at their current level. This would be the first step towards the gradual phasing out of the repeated use of low wage temporary visas as a way to meet ongoing skill shortages. Instead we would support a shift toward better long-term work migration solutions for low skill workers who would wish to live here permanently;
  2. Allow temporary migrants currently tied to a single employer to seek alternative employment within the same industry and location;
  3. Within the current Welcoming Communities Programme move more toward a ‘tika’ approach even if this means taking longer to expand;
  4. Expand the funding available within the Welcoming Communities Programme to include part provision for the scoping phase, innovative solutions aimed at addressing negative views towards migrants and the development of personalised settlement plans;
  5. Within the context of an “accredited” Welcoming Community allow specialised nomination of applicants and additional points in line with local preferences;
  6. Co-develop history courses to be delivered locally to adult migrants as part of the move toward compulsory history education in schools;
  7. Make use of personalised settlement plans as a way to overcome information gaps in regard to settlement services;
  8. Adopt the formal use of sports programmes for children of newcomers; and
  9. Introduce residency requirements to maintain permanent residency.
go back

Maxim Institute is an independent charitable trust that relies on the generous support of families, community groups, trusts, and individuals—without them, we wouldn’t exist.

We’d love to have you join our Community of Supporters. We need people like you to help us continue this work—and to grow it—so we can respond to today’s challenges and opportunities and help create a better future for the next generation.