Commentary

What does re-engaging with the world mean for Immigration?

February, 2022

By: Brett O’Riley

Chief Executive, EMA

The border reopening announcements with Australia (mid-January) and internationally (mid- February) were welcome relief for our business communities, especially exporters. A definitive signal around opening borders and re-engaging with the world has been desperately awaited by those manufacturers and exporters needing to get back in front of customers and get access to their own operations in other countries. 

International relationships have withered, or in some cases been lost, as New Zealand has lingered in lockdowns, suffered the frustrations and punishing results of an MIQ lottery, and our borders resembled an iron curtain. International orders were lost, and business and export growth opportunities missed – there is only so much that can be achieved being there in person. 

But loosening those border crossing requirements now throws the spotlight on another complex and constrained area for New Zealand and our business sector. What do we do with immigration and especially the pressing need to plug the skills gaps across so many sectors of New Zealand business?  

We must not overlook the humanitarian issues caused by the separation of families and we’ve seen the crushing of whole sectors – international education and tourism – as our borders have remained shut to immigrants and tourists alike. 

As international borders come down what’s our plan to reunite families, restore damaged sectors that need visa entries for their survival, and how do we plug our ever-widening skills gaps in the face of intense international competition for people? 

The much heralded and thoroughly underwhelming announcement of an “Immigration Reset,” seems to have disappeared into the ether. Hardly a word of it, since the announcement, has been heard. 

We’ve seen the announcement enabling 120,000 immigrants stuck in the country to embark on a Work-to-Residence visa programme that starts on December 1. That will help and we commend Minister Kris Faafoi for leading this. 

We have also seen a new face, Alison McDonald, take over leading Immigration NZ and she has demonstrated a refreshing trend of involving business in discussions around the new residency programme and urging a customer focus for a department that has suffered its share of recent challenges. 

When business and Government work well together we can get some great results. When business identified huge gaps in the trades, Government came up with an apprenticeship boost programme that has encouraged more than 100,000 workers into skills training at work. The $375 million scheme now needs to be hard-wired into our system as it is the SMEs that undertake much of this training and they need the assistance. We need a similar approach to skills gaps that can be filled through immigration. 

In this crisis that New Zealand is facing, we need an immigration agency that is engaged and working with the business and other communities to ensure we get our migrant and skills mix right for the country. 

But Immigration, while recruiting hard, is still understaffed for many of the same reasons as businesses throughout the country. And its main source of revenue, visa fees, has dried up too. It’s also finally going digital with the new system being used to process that huge wave of new residents – fingers crossed this new digital system works seamlessly. 

We need Immigration NZ to be on its game and we need recognition from Minister Kris Faafoi and his government colleagues that a forward-looking immigration policy has a critical role to play for New Zealand’s business and economic success and adds to the rich diversity of our communities. That includes allowing overstayers to remain in New Zealand, let’s embrace these people not demonise them. 

We also need to start competing for that international talent and investment now. 

With unemployment at just 3.4% and the skills shortages, already an issue pre covid, now made acute by closed borders, we need the new immigration reset or settings to be in place quickly. The demand for low, medium, and skilled workers has not been chased away by COVID. 

Many of our members tell us they have done everything they can to hold on to staff during the current lockdowns because they know they won’t be able to replace them when the lockdowns and restrictions finally end. 

The EMA is entirely supportive of the goal of training and upskilling our own New Zealand workforce to fill those skills gaps but there are now significant more jobs than available people. Nothing will change in the short to medium term. We still need the immigration pool to fill those gaps and the reality is we will also need to import skills to then train those locals with the interest and the potential to enter into our workforce and gain the skills to progress. 

As the Productivity Commission recently found, immigrants represent a net positive to our economy and our productivity, so we also need a long-term plan for immigration that is going to keep adding both the economic benefits and the positive social outcomes that come from diverse societies. 

And we need to do that against an international marketplace for skills which is getting hot. We already lag behind because of our closed borders. Australia and Canada both tend to look for their migrant skills from the same pools as New Zealand. Both are aggressively pushing their open migration policies as tools to attract talent and help kickstart the restart of their post-COVID economies.  

We’ve reopened our borders for New Zealanders, now we need some haste and policy guidance to reopen those borders to a structured immigration response to our skills shortages. Ultimately all New Zealanders will benefit from this if we work in partnership with Government, unions, and the business community.

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