Yes, we’re making progress towards getting more people into the country to address our dire labour shortages domestically and from migrants. But it’s taking too long, and we may never be able to fill the vacancies with the current approach.
We’re overlooking those who are already here and part of our communities.
Overstayers aren’t criminals, they’re a key part of the answer to not just our labour shortages, but to some of the inequity in our society.
By introducing an immediate overstayer amnesty - focused on the estimated 15,000 overstayers based predominantly in Auckland – we get the workers we need in the sectors that need it most and provide employment opportunities to support these people and their families.
The Pacific Pay Gap Inquiry work highlighted the issue of overstayers as a significant contributor to income inequality in Pacific Island communities.
Basically, you’ll do anything you need to support your family whether or not you’ve got a visa, but if you haven’t, you’ll end up working in the grey or black areas of the economy and potentially be exploited. Then it becomes a cyclical thing, with whole families avoiding participating in, or being identified by our health and education systems because they don’t want to draw attention to themselves and living every day with a level of abject fear.
I know what you’re thinking; How can you give amnesty to a particular group?
We’re not suggesting we do, it’s an opportunity all around, but our ties to Pasifika communities run deep.
At a time of some instability in the Pacific region, prioritising amnesty for Pasifika people would further strengthen those ties, and I would argue also help erase the last of the stigma of our shameful dawn raid legacy.
Plus, many of these people have actually been here for years and years and are a great cultural fit, so why wouldn’t we be looking at supporting them first?
An amnesty like this would encourage those affected to join the workforce at a time of transformation for several of our sectors, including manufacturing and construction – two in which Pasifika people are well represented already - and benefit from not only the skills and opportunities, but the support that this transformation will provide.
One of our roles at the EMA is to work through MSD with those on Jobseeker benefits to re-engage and participate in the workforce. And while we work with the employers to bring Jobseeker beneficiaries into their workplace, we could equally assist and support overstayers given amnesty back into the workplace as part of that programme – if they were to be granted residency status.
Many employers welcome a fresh, willing, and able cohort of workers into the job market, and we’ve seen it work.
We recently helped bring a group of workers together with one of our manufacturers who needed 20 new staff. Working with the church, were able to bring a single group from that church, who all wanted to work together.
It’s a win-win – for the manufacturer and our economy, and for the individuals and their community through new jobs at fair wages, with the support they need.
For those who are willing and able, and want to step into the light, why wouldn’t we give them the opportunity? It seems to address an immediate as well as a future need.
Where’s the downside?
- Brett O’Riley is chief executive of the Employers and Manufacturers Association.