Francis Collins: We are creating a guest-worker programme

Seasonal work like kiwifruit picking is a major employer of migrant labour in New Zealand. Photo / Supplied
Seasonal work like kiwifruit picking is a major employer of migrant labour in New Zealand. Photo / Supplied

The immigration policy changes proposed by the Government this week are not in the interest of people in New Zealand, whether migrants or not.

The claim made by the Minister of Immigration is that the changes will ensure "inward migration best supports the economy and the labour market".

The only way in which they will achieve that is by making people on temporary visas disposable and by introducing increased inequality into society through restricted access to the rights associated with long term residency.

The proposal to establish a maximum duration for some people holding essential skills work visas is most troubling. The plan is that "lower skilled and lower paid" people will be able to remain in New Zealand for a maximum of three years before undertaking a "minimum stand down period".

There will also be changes to the ability of visa holders to live with their children and family. This risks creating a more unequal labour market between those who have or can plan for long term rights to live and work in New Zealand, to change employers, to access social resources like education and health, and another population who live in legislated inequality.

They will be stuck in temporary status with none of these rights.

On the information currently provided, this amounts to the introduction of a guest worker programme in New Zealand.

Guest worker programmes of this kind are apparent in East and Southeast Asia and the Middle East today and they also have a precedent in programmes established in post-war Europe and North America.

Internationally the effects of guest worker programmes are well known. They create an underclass in the labour market because employers recognise the limited rights that workers have and their narrow focus on earnings within the time limited period of their visas.

Without the support of family and community links, workers become increasingly marginalised and subject to exploitative practices by employers, agents and others who target the vulnerability that migration policy creates.

This is not the New Zealand society that we want to create. It will not serve the interests of New Zealanders and will not produce a desirable place for all of us to live in.

It is ironic that these changes have been proposed in exactly the same week that the settlement around aged residential, home support and disability services has been announced.

The latter is a monumental development that works towards long overdue equality in this sector that has the potential to lead to improvements in other parts of the labour market.

The plan to increasingly restrict rights of people on temporary visas does exactly the opposite - it will create greater inequality and diminish workplace conditions for everyone.

It is also notable that the aged and residential care sector is one where people on work visas are particularly important, providing much needed care support for New Zealand's ageing population.

Even with the increase in wages that will come from the settlement, migrant carers will not meet the proposed salary thresholds to remain longer than three years.

As in other key sectors like farming and construction we will have an itinerant workforce who are valued only for their short-term labour contributions; they will be viewed as workers and not members of society.

There are other ways to reform current migration settings that would be more beneficial to everyone who lives in New Zealand. Rather than restrict the rights of temporary workers the Government could make sure that visa processes are more transparent and that people approved for visas are provided enough time to establish feasible lives.

We could grant full labour market rights to all workers in New Zealand regardless of their visa status, allowing people to move from undesirable employment situations into work that is more fulfilling and contributes more apparently to wider societal goals of equality and inclusion.

Lastly, there could be an accrual of points towards residency for the time that people spend in New Zealand, recognising the contribution that people make to society as well as their role as temporary workers.

This doesn't preclude the Government restricting the numbers of visas in particular industries if these are perceived to be too high but it does encourage an approach to migration that is progressive, inclusive and reflects the society that New Zealanders want to live in.

• Francis Collins is a senior lecturer and a Rutherford Discovery Fellow at the University of Auckland.

He is leading a programme of research on the lives of people on work visas in farming, healthcare and construction in New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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