A Radio New Zealand article recently reported that “National blames ‘the dark hand of NZ first’ for sharp drop in skilled immigrants”. It states that overall new resident numbers fell from 47684 to 37948 in the last financial year and that almost three quarters of the changes was down to a decrease in skilled immigrants.

Immigration New Zealand publishes immigration statistics on their website, so the numbers being quoted in the Radio New Zealand article can be looked up. It does appear according to these statistics that the total number of Residence Visa approvals, across all categories, fell from 47684 in the 2016/17 financial year, to 37948 in the 2017/18 financial year.

The INZ financial year begins in July.  In the 6 months to 31 December 2018, the total number of Residence Visa approvals is 17716. It may be that the total Residence Visa approvals through to June 2019 represents a further downward trend.

These numbers quoted are across all Residence categories. The numbers for Skilled Migrant category Residence Visa approvals are

  • 24140 in 2016/17;
  • 17085 in 2017/18; and
  • 5930 in the period July – December 2018.

It does appear that the slump in the approval of Skilled Migrant category Residence Visas is a significant portion of the fall in total Residence Visa approvals.

The total number of Temporary Work Visas on the other hand, has increased from 226,321 in 2016/17 to 230,259 in 2017/18.

It may seem strange that the total number of Temporary Work Visas granted is going up while the total number of Residence Visas and Skilled Migrant category Residence Visas is dropping. This signals an increase in temporary workers of varying skill, but a decrease in those able to apply for Residence under the Skilled Migrant category.

The categories of Temporary Work Visa whose numbers have increased in the 2016 – 2018 period are:

  • Essential Skills (this forms the largest proportionate increase), from 32292 to 38101
  • Approved in principle
  • Asylum seeker
  • Belgium working holiday scheme
  • Canada working holiday scheme
  • China special work
  • Crew of foreign fishing vessel
  • Partner of a student
  • Partner of a worker
  • Post-study employer assisted
  • Recognised seasonal employer
  • Silver fern job search
  • Talent (accredited employer)
  • Variation of conditions

The increase in temporary workers but reduction in Skilled Migrant numbers may be the flow on effect of changes to the Skilled Migrant category in October 2016, raising the minimum number of points required to achieve Residence from 100 to 160. See here.

Further changes by the National Government also came into effect in August 2017, introducing a remuneration threshold for employment which Skilled Migrant category applications are made with. See here. At the same time, the National Government introduced remuneration requirements for Essential Skills Work Visas. See here.

Following the 2017 Election, in January 2018 changes made by the Labour-led Government were introduced, which raised the remuneration threshold for employment relied upon for Skilled Migrant category applications. Remuneration requirements for Essential Skills Work Visas were also increased. See here. And in November 2018 the Skilled Migrant remuneration threshold went up again. Remuneration requirements for Essential Skills Work Visas were also further increased. We recently published a summary of the cumulative effect of these increases.

The significant upward ratcheting of minimum salary levels has no doubt been an influential factor in the drop in Skilled Migrant Residence Visa approvals. Both the National and Labour-led Governments have also raised the salary requirements for the approval of Essential Skills Work Visas, but the lower salary bands are somewhat less than the Skilled Migrant threshold.

The Radio New Zealand article quotes National Immigration spokesperson Michael Woodhouse and Immigration Minister under the previous National Government as saying,

so we have this almost perverse trend at the moment where we’re getting very high numbers and increasing numbers of lower skilled workers coming in on temporary visas but lower numbers of higher skilled workers gaining residence. That’s a significant drop at a time when our economy most needs skilled migrants. I have no doubt that the dark hand of New Zealand First in the background is influencing that trend.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway was quoted in the Radio New Zealand article as saying he was considering ways of lifting the numbers and denied the decrease in numbers was down to government policy or New Zealand First influence.

It is something I’m looking at, whether we can do a better job of targeting skilled migrants and providing opportunities for them to achieve residency. At the moment I don’t think the residence programme is sufficiently well targeted. Michael Woodhouse need look in only one direction regarding residency numbers and that is in the mirror. He is speculating an relying on anecdotes, there’s absolutely no truth to what he is saying, what we are seeing is the flow-on effect of changes that he made when he was the Minister.

Immigration New Zealand said that the fall in skilled immigration was expected, and was down to the policy changes made in 2016 and 2017, raising the threshold to qualify for residence and the introduction of remuneration criteria.

As the writer of this blog is indicating, changes making it more difficult for Residence to be granted under the Skilled Migrant category have been introduced by both the previous National and the new Labour-led coalition Government. It would be of much benefit if politicians, rather than attempting to blame each other, took responsibility and ownership of each of their policies which in some ways are very similar. In fact, in a blog post just after the Election it was pointed out that Labour essentially inherited the policies already put in place by the previous administration.

The current Minister says he is looking at ways to better target skilled migrants and provide them with opportunities to achieve Residence. The question this writer must ask is, how long is this going to take? It has now been more than a year since the September 2017 election, and the only changes introduced to the Skilled Migrant category by the Labour-led Coalition are those identified by the writer in this blog.

If Skilled Migrant Residence Visa approval numbers continue to fall but Temporary Work Visa approvals continue to rise, this may be seen as a more transient situation for those interested in New Zealand as a migration destination. More will be “in limbo” on a Temporary Visa, but unable to achieve the certainty associated with Residence status. This would appear to run counter to the current Minister’s expressed concerns regarding migrant exploitation (see for example, here).

Politicians react to public opinion and it is the case that immigration was a hot topic in the lead-up to the Election, so this may have influenced some of the changes identified above. But it may be a perverse outcome, bad for New Zealand’s reputation and its access to international talent, meaning politicians may need to make their positions clearer and implement their intended changes with more speed.