Kiwi, please come home

By Simon Collins

Members of the New Zealand diaspora tell two starkly different stories. Those who tell one story may be amenable to attempts to lure them home. But those who tell the other may be lost forever.

One version is the familiar tale of adventure and self-development. The young person from Kawerau or Kaikohe, freshly educated and with perhaps a couple of years' work experience, flies off to Sydney, Hong Kong or London to see the world and perhaps make their fortune.

They may come home, but even if they don't they will remember New Zealand fondly. They may be susceptible to the campaign Immigration Minister Paul Swain signalled this week to tell them about our "booming" economy and the opportunities it offers to bring their skills back.

"We need them home," the minister said. He hopes to use families here - particularly grandparents - to encourage their offspring to return.

But there is another story being told now by many who have left New Zealand, and it is not so heartwarming. Some expatriates feel that they have been pushed as well as pulled to leave home - by financial necessity.

Qualified graduates laden with debts, skilled migrants who can't find work here and families who simply struggle to make ends meet on Kiwi wages are leaving with bitter memories. Many want to put this country behind them for good.

We tapped into their stories by putting six questions at the bottom of the web edition of the Herald report on Swain's plans and related reports this week, asking expatriate readers to email us their responses. We had to pull the questions 24 hours later after we were swamped by almost 200 emails from 23 countries and ran out of time to read any more.

The first question was, "How long have you been overseas?" Richard Griffin emailed back: "Actually have just returned."

He is an information technology (IT) contractor, just back after four and a half years, most recently in Switzerland where he met his German wife, Stephanie. They have both landed IT contracts in Auckland paying around $60 an hour, rented an apartment near Newmarket and are looking to buy a house.

Their IT skills and families on two continents make them footloose global citizens - just the kind Swain hopes to lure. They expect to stay here three to five years, then go back to Europe for a few years to be close to Stephanie's parents.

Richard catches a train into central Auckland and is frustrated that some days it runs 20 minutes late. In his email, he said: "Public transport in Auckland is a major reason why we are already considering leaving again."

But there are compensations. "Going out seems more relaxed here - restaurants, dining, and being able to drive off to a beach," Richard says.

"I think I'd still like to come back here. We have no children, but people tell me that for children it's still very good here. There isn't much cost and it's still considered safe.

"And you can still get a bit of grass here. In Switzerland there was no one we knew who had anything more than a 2m x 2m cobbled thing - if they were on a ground floor. And people didn't want a ground floor because they got burgled."

The Griffins have choices. They chose to come here because they both wanted new jobs and a new flat.

Debbie and Steve Patterson have fewer choices. After five years in Melbourne, they came home to claim a house from Debbie's first marriage, and have taken pay cuts of $14,500 and $20,000 a year. Now they can't afford to move back again.

"There aren't many days that go by without us kicking ourselves for coming home. Why did we do it?" Debbie asked in her email.

From 1990-98 Steve worked at Comalco's aluminium smelter at Bluff. At first it was a strong unionised site, but after the Employment Contracts Act in 1991 the company bought most workers out of the union. Staff were cut from around 1600 to 800.

Steve took redundancy and moved to a unionised Melbourne glass-cutting factory. When he left in December 2003, he was earning A$19.61 ($20.98) an hour. In a non-unionised glass-cutting plant back in Auckland, he earns just $17.50 an hour with no extra for overtime and no super, health insurance or meal money - all paid for by his employer in Melbourne.

Debbie earned A$48,000 ($51,372) as a call-centre supervisor in Melbourne. Back in Auckland she took a regular call centre job at $33,500 offered on condition that she left the union collective.

"I'm struggling so I thought 'I've got to get that extra cash in'," she says. "But now if I work any overtime I don't get any extra for it [per hour]."

Out of this lower wage she pays almost twice Melbourne prices for chicken and almost three times as much for pork. Petrol costs $1.22 a litre at the local Albany Shell station and will be slugged a further 5c tax from April 1. In Melbourne it costs A$1.06 ($1.14).

"We were so bursting to come home, to get back to good old Kiwiland," Debbie says. "But the cost of living is so high. We used to have pork once a month. Here we've had it twice in the last 15 months. This house needs so much work, but we can't afford to start it.

"It's heartbreaking really. This country is just stagnating. I don't know what's causing it."

It is easy to explain the Kiwi diaspora if we just look at well-paid global citizens like Richard Griffin. It's no accident that the three developed countries with the biggest proportions of their tertiary-educated people living abroad are all small nations: New Zealand, Ireland and Luxembourg. Small countries simply don't have many specialist jobs.

"Here in London I'm working as a lawyer, but in a way I never could in New Zealand because the market is simply not big enough to support this kind of specialised role," says Chrissie Sheehy, who works fulltime checking BBC programmes before they go to air.

Big companies can pay more too. "I make three to four times more money in the UK than I would in an equivalent position in NZ," writes Jason Waite from Barclays Bank.

There will always be an outflow of such talented people from smaller places to bigger places with bigger prospects. But Ireland and Luxembourg - respectively fastest-growing and richest nations in the world - are proof that those who stay behind can still do very well too.

The harder question is why those who have stayed in New Zealand or come home, like the Pattersons, have not done so well. Our expatriates are not impressed.

"When I read about the NZ Government's plan to lure NZ expats back, I just laughed," writes Ilma Ruocco, an industrial designer in Sydney. "When I go home I'm always taken aback by the shabbiness of the houses, the lack of investment in towns and roads. I get the feeling the whole NZ economy is unsustainable."

Singapore software firm partner Jamie Clark says: "New Zealand company tax and employment law are strong disincentives to locating there. I would love to be back home employing Kiwis but the NZ Government is making that look like a daft idea."

Actually New Zealand is, as Swain said, "booming". But much of our growth was, indeed, "unsustainable". We spent 5.1 per cent more than we produced, almost as bad as America's 5.7 per cent. Yet while the markets punish the US dollar, the kiwi has been held up by high interest rates.

Those high rates have also diverted our earnings into servicing the investors who finance our spending. In the past 20 years, gross profits and allowances for depreciation have increased from 37 per cent to 45 per cent of the national cake, while wages dropped from 55 per cent to 43 per cent. (Indirect taxes also rose, from 8 to 12 per cent.)

The unions reckon these figures justify a 5 per cent wage increase to help attract expatriates home. But the size of the wage gap makes most expatriates scoff. Only 21 per cent of those who answered a question about it said the 5 per cent pay rise would affect their decision to return, 6 per cent said "maybe" and 72 per cent said "no".

"Nope. Maybe 20 times that!" said Matthew Dalgety of Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong, who estimates he earns three times what he'd get here.

Some of those who emailed plan to stay overseas until they have paid off their loans. In contrast, Jason Waite tells of a Norwegian he met in Malaysia before beginning a postgraduate diploma in Singapore. His Government was paying for the whole year.

"I commented that it was a bit stupid, as he could take all his state-funded education and live somewhere else with the end result of Norway receiving nil benefit.

"His reply was, 'Why would I do that? I love my country and they have looked after me.'

"That sense of loyalty has gone for many of us," Waite says.

"We've been chased away by low salaries, higher taxation and crippling student loans, and feel a bit cynical when the cry to return is shouted from the rooftops."

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