On 7 April a set of policy changes was introduced to curb the tide of inward migration brought about by previous policies. These were described by the Minister of Immigration as a response to an “unsustainable” inflow of population.

The reality is a bit more nuanced. While the media pointed to some 173,000 migrants having come in during 2023, the majority of these were in fact approvals under the one-off 2021 Resident Visa, at over 130,000 in the year ended December 2023. This was a scheme to quickly and permanently secure a large number of overseas workers to make up for the heavily truncated inward flow of people during the COVID-19 years. At the same time, the Accredited Employer Work Visa (AEWV) policy was rushed out in mid-2022 to replace a number of previous categories, with few checks either on employers or applicants. This resulted in about 70,000 visas being granted in the year to March 2024.

One justification for tightening up on hiring lower- or unskilled labour was an increase in reports of migrant exploitation, which has received a lot of media attention in the last few months. This was in fact encouraged by the lack of verification of employers seeking the accreditation ticket; companies’ ability to conduct “zero-zero” Job Checks, whereby no qualifications or experience were required in order to employ workers; and – most damaging of all – the monetisation of job offers by the Job Token system.

Putting the Lid on Unskilled Labour

Many of the new rules focus on making it harder for so-called lower skilled workers to get visas. These are people who are applying for jobs in Levels 4 and 5 of the ANZSCO – generally speaking, clerical, sales, many hospitality, labouring, caregiving and similar sorts of occupations. These include:

  • Requiring employers to advertise Level 4 and 5 jobs for 3 weeks instead of 2 weeks for other roles at the Job Check stage, in which businesses test the market to find out if local people are available;
  • A return to obliging companies to list Level 4 and 5 positions with Work and Income, a bureaucratic exercise that was previously ditched along with the Essential Skills visa policy;
  • Visa applicants for these jobs must now have minimum English ability of IELTS 4.0 or above – this was largely absent from earlier Work Visa policies.

It has been made less attractive for workers to consider jobs at this level, by limiting Work Visas to 2 years (plus an additional year with a new Job Check). Up till now, they could look forward to getting 5-year visas like other workers. Those who are to be paid more than 1.5 times the median wage, or nearly $100,000 a year, can still get the full 5 years, but that’s not much use to those working in rest homes or restaurants.

In addition, potential workers must now prove, irrespective of the job on offer, that they have 3 years’ relevant work experience or a relevant qualification equivalent to a Certificate at Level 4 on the NZ Qualifications & Credentials Framework – that is, something earned after finishing high school. A qualification or work experience is relevant if it is “in the same field or industry as the job offered”. Arguments are likely to develop about Immigration officers’ opinions on where a particular field begins and ends.

Blast from the Past

Another throw-back addition to the policy, like that requiring employers to engage with WINZ for lower-skilled jobs, is the reintroduction of the “substantial match” assessment of a job. The job which the employer claims to offer is compared with the nearest equivalent on ANZSCO. This was a staple element of Essential Skills Work Visa decisionmaking, and it used to lead to some very detailed arguments about what particular tasks were or were not included in the role.

One effect of bringing this back is that, if the employer puts a job forward as being at Skill Level 1 – 3, but Immigration decides the job is actually Skill Level 4 – 5, then it will apply the rules for those types of jobs to the Job Check assessment. The classic example is a Chef role (Skill Level 2) being seen as that of a Cook (Skill Level 4). If that happens, then the employer is meant to have listed the job with WINZ and to have advertised for 3 weeks, not 2, before making the Job Check application. As they were proposing to fill a Chef role, they would have done neither of those things, so that the Job Check must fail and they have to start again.

Those of us in the industry have seen all of this before, and thought that we were well rid of it when the old policies were scrapped.

How Will This Play Out?

What seems inevitable from much of the above is that getting people onto Work Visas is going to be harder, and is going to take longer. Processing times will stretch out. The uptake of migrant workers will slow down. This is what the present administration wants, and fulfills the objective of stemming the upswing in migrant population. This will be little comfort to employers who are still desperately short of competent workers in many industries; and it will not make the jobs of visa officers any easier by requiring them to carry out additional assessments in the course of most Job Check and Work Visa applications.

It will most likely make New Zealand a less attractive option for those still offshore who work in lower-skilled occupations. Certainly the reduction of the period of maximum stay will have a dampening effect. The problem is that we still need the rest home carers and truck drivers to work here, because New Zealanders either don’t want to do them, or don’t have the skills.

The message being sent is that we don’t really want or value people carrying out these roles. Really, we do want them, and we should value them.