Julian Wood

By Julian Wood - 24/09/2019

Julian Wood

By Julian Wood -

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Review our reliance on temporary workers

New Zealanders are heavy users of temporary work migration, so it was disappointing that no-one seriously discussed this last week when changes to visa conditions were announced. Temporary work visas are useful in the short term but can create long-term risks, potentially reducing our productivity and, even worse, normalising the commodification of people as labour units, all while convincing ourselves we are caring.

Temporary work visas are useful in the short term but can create long-term risks

Temporary work visas took off in the early 2000s in response to a strong labour market and emerging skills shortages. There are a whole range of visa types including working holidays, essential skills, temporary family, and seasonal horticultural visas. These visas give no right to permanent residence in New Zealand and no access to subsidised health care or benefits (aside from ACC and education for children) for the first two years.

We obviously like this deal, because the temporary migrant labour force is significant and growing. In 2017/18 it was around 170,000 people, and accounted for roughly 6 percent of our overall employment. Many migrants also presumably like the deal. For some, a temporary visa enables them to work while studying or travelling, or send remittances back to family. Around half (not counting those on working holiday visas) also transition to some form of permanent visa. Adding to the positives, according to ongoing Government analysis there are “no significant indications of migrants crowding out New Zealanders for jobs.”

But maybe we shouldn’t like the deal as much as we do. First, under the headline of that analysis was an uneven distribution of negative and positive effects. For example, there were positive effects on new hires in the food services industry but a negative effect on new hires of beneficiaries in horticultural regions, and for those on study to work visas there were negative effects on new youth hires.

Why invest in better technology, the kind that drives long-term productivity gains for the whole economy, if low-cost temporary workers will do the job instead?

More fundamentally, solving labour shortages by importing people for short-term work can create unhealthy industry dependencies. Why invest in better technology, the kind that drives long-term productivity gains for the whole economy, if low-cost temporary workers will do the job instead?

One solution is to reorient migration policy toward a longer term or higher commitment both ways. This might mean investing more in community activities and liaison with temporary workers so that we can host them well, and ensuring that vulnerable workers are better protected, for example by making it mandatory for health and safety information to be provided in a worker’s first language. This would make sure we bear a fair share of the costs and risks of bringing temporary workers here. It would also rehumanise our policy, which at the moment is in danger of creating an underclass we can discard should they become ill or an economic burden.

Indeed, as certain industries and places become highly reliant on temporary migrant labour and our productivity remains stubbornly low, our deal-making savvy looks increasingly questionable. We should rethink our growing addiction to the worst forms of temporary visa use or just admit we are not that caring after all.

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Julian Wood

By Julian Wood -

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