One of the leading economists behind Government plans for an immigration reset is calling for foreign workers trapped in New Zealand to be given a "one-off right to remain" until 2024.
NZIER economist Peter Wilson has joined calls from the Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA) to apply an amnesty for short term workers stuck in New Zealand without visas.
He argues the primary motivation for this should be compassionate but says recent falls in unemployment should reassure the Government that the immigrants will be able to get jobs and contribute to the economy.
"At the very least, everyone who was in New Zealand lawfully on the day the borders were closed should, subject to health and police checks, be granted an extension of their visas till 31 December 2024, with the same work and other rights as applied on the day of issue," he says.
"We see no downside to this approach: it simply acknowledges that Covid-19 is a long-term event".
But an even more compassionate approach would be to issue these people with a new type of visa, again until the end of 2024, "giving them full work rights, access to the health system and maybe even social welfare benefits".
This was more than an extension of existing rights, but with labour markets proving
very tight, it was hard to argue that these people would not be able to get jobs and contribute, he said.
Wilson co-wrote two influential papers on immigration for the Productivity Commission concluding that New Zealand was not well served by an over reliance on low skilled immigrant labour.
Subsequently the Government has announced plans for an immigration reset and asked the Productivity Commission to produce a full review of immigration policy (the draft is due to ve released in October)
Labour market data this week showed unemployment had fallen to pre-Covid levels at 4 per cent.
On Monday National Party leader Judith Collins proposed a three-year Covid Contribution Visa to keep the about 35,000 essential skills workers and their families on New Zealand shores.
Yesterday EMA chief executive Brett O'Riley called for the Government to declare an overstayer amnesty following the Government's decision to allow more RSE workers from the Pacific Islands to come here quarantine-free from next month.
"We know a large proportion of those who have overstayed their visas are from the Pacific Islands, and given they are already here and part of our community, why wouldn't we be looking at supporting them first?" O'Riley said.
"There is no doubt that Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) workers will fill labour shortages, particularly in the agriculture sector, but potentially people for those jobs are here already so I'm not clear on why we're not giving them first crack."
O'Riley says businesses across all regions and sectors are struggling with skill shortages and there is a need for this kind of approach from the Government, but overstayer amnesty should have been the first step.
"We've got people who need the work but are scared of coming out of the shadows for fear of being sent home because of their temporary status, and who won't have the financial security they used to," he said.
When restrictions were first set, the Government may have reasonably feared far worse unemployment outcomes, Wilson said.
"It is difficult to argue that extending work rights to those currently in New Zealand would be at the expense of Kiwi workers".
"Hospitality, kindness, generosity, support – in a word, manākitanga – is what New Zealanders are known for.
"Now is the time to apply those principles and do the right thing for people who have been stuck in New Zealand due to Covid-19," Wilson said.