Changes to work visas focused on getting more Kiwis into jobs are a double-edged sword, hindering recruitment while making it more difficult for business and industry to hang onto skilled, productive workers, say immigration specialists.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway last week announced a six-month extension to temporary work visas – a move that provided employers with a measure of certainty that they would have access to workers in the short term and the ability to plan for the future.

But Immigration New Zealand also cut the 12-month lower-paid essential skills work visas in half to six months and quietly abandoned the Australian and NZ standard classification of occupations - ANZSCO - standard, reverting to a pure remuneration threshold as a condition for entry.

Yesterday, the agency added several occupations to the list of 44 skills that fall under the skills level exception test. New entrants will include aged or disabled carers, bicycle mechanics, drillers and nursing support workers and announced updated criteria for essential skills work visas,

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The move towards using a median wage threshold to decide how long someone can stay on an essential skills visa was greeted positively by BusinessNZ, which had long considered ANZSCO as clumsy, reliant on interpretation by immigration officials and "not fit for purpose" by modern business standards.

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Under those occupational standards, Immigration NZ approved a total of 197,785 entries for the year to June 2020. While this was well down on the 242,366 for last year as a result of Covid-related border shutdowns, the problematic nature of the categories was reflected in the number of 'not recorded' approvals where no standard was met. That was well over half of all approvals, at 123,339 versus 162,145 in the 'non category' last year.

Rachel Simpson, manager for education, skills and immigration at BusinessNZ, said the bigger issue was in ensuring a flow of "otherwise unavailable" workers critical to supporting the economic recovery.

"We are short of a lot of the critical skills necessary to our recovery and companies which are prepared to invest need the confidence to know they can access specialist expertise from overseas."

Nor did the country need "kneejerk reactions" to protect local jobs during labour market shortages where companies could end up losing skilled workers, she said.

Sensible approach needed

"Regardless of who is in the role, whether it's a New Zealander or not, it takes a while to train and get up to speed," so access to an international pool is important, she said. "We just need a sensible approach."

Aaron Martin, principal immigration lawyer at NZ Immigration Law, said another implication of the revised entry standards was that, effective from July 27, the 'low skilled' baseline will be bumped up from $21.68 per hour under the ANZSCO skills equivalent level to $25.50 per hour.

Martin said that meant mid-skilled people eligible for a three-year visa under current rules, would be assessed as being a low skilled worker if paid below $25.50 and only able to get an 18-month visa that has to be renewed every six months, provided the labour market test was met.

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"The dollar figure shouldn't be a proxy for skills as salary doesn't always reflect a person's importance to a business, their job ability, or even where they work. You might end up in the bizarre situation that someone on the West Coast, doing the same thing as a worker in Auckland, will end up on the six-month merry-go-round versus qualifying for a three-year visa, simply because of regional salary differences."

Additionally, he said employers who want to fill lower paid roles will also need a skills-match report from the Ministry of Social Development before employing a migrant worker.

"That will likely prove to be frustrating, time consuming and expensive, because it's going to lock employers into a continuous round of recruitment processes and engaging with MSD."

Intended as a deterrent

Martin said outside the hassle factor, there was also a financial implication, with people and businesses having to make repeated applications at $495 apiece.

Ultimately, he said the changes were intended to deter employers from using migrants rather than New Zealanders to fill low-skilled positions by putting applications in the "too hard" basket.

Martin said the government position presumed that employees were a "replaceable commodity," when in reality the issue was more about transferable skills. "An unemployed airline pilot isn't going to necessarily take up a job at Countdown."

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"Nor does it acknowledge that increased numbers of unemployed does not correspond to increased numbers with the skills and qualifications employers need. Employers are looking for particular areas of knowledge or experience and that's not necessarily going to be readily available just because we've had an increase in unemployment."

The other issue, he said, was that Kiwis weren't compelled to take up jobs, and could go onto an unemployment benefit.

"There is no threat to a person's benefit if they don't take a job that they could readily do – so government is now denying businesses the ability to get a work visa for a valued employee, but won't compel a New Zealander to actually take the job."