Winston Peters has accused Labour of "dog-whistling" on the immigration debate after Andrew Little's comments on Chinese and Indian chefs.

The Labour leaders told reporters at Parliament yesterday that large inflows of semi-skilled migrants were putting pressure on jobs, especially in Auckland. The Government needed to "turn the tap down a bit" until conditions improved, he said.

Mr Little highlighted a provision in the free trade agreement with China that allowed Chinese chefs to work in this country.

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"But the reality is we have big ethnic populations, certainly Indians, certainly Chinese, and I would have thought we could outsource chefs locally rather than have to rely on immigration to get them."

However, immigration figures show visas granted to Chinese chefs are capped at 200 places -- under a free trade agreement signed by Labour -- and it has taken years to fill these spots.

Under the China FTA the number of Chinese chefs is capped at 200 and the Immigration NZ website shows it took from 2008 until September 2011 to fill those places.

New Zealand First leader Mr Peters said he wanted to know what Labour would judge to be an acceptable level of immigration. Labour had long supported high levels of immigration, he said.

"This idea of dog-whistling on issues which hitherto your party has been a major initiator of, just won't wash. The key criticism that I have of a comment from Labour on this issue is, how long ago did you start ignoring the New Zealand workforce ... in favour of a foreign workforce?

"For over 20 years that's what they have been doing - ignoring the needs of ordinary New Zealand men and women in the workforce... in favour of allowing massive competition from abroad ... it is a bit late now to realise the damage they have done to their own people."

Mr Peters said he wasn't concerned at all about Labour attracting voters from New Zealand First: "New Zealanders know where the genuine product is, on this and many other issues".

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse said New Zealand's immigration was demand-driven, and there was a need for hospitality workers in a tourism sector that was growing. Mr Woodhouse said the public would judge Mr Little's comments.

"We have heard rants about Chinese surnames and other quite xenophobic things coming from parties on the other side of the house - I think the public can see through that."

Mr Woodhouse said it appeared Labour was trying to take votes off New Zealand First: "I think [Mr Little] is trying to find a space... that is traditionally Winston's".

After the immigration comments led last night's news, Mr Little tweeted that the story was "truly weird", and that the subject was raised by journalists and not himself.

In a later post on the Labour website, he repeated the assertion that media reporting of his comments was "baffling". In the post, he said he was asked about apparent concerns locals had with immigrant chefs by the Hutt News when he visited Lower Hutt last week.

"I said there was an issue with semi-skilled people being recruited under skills shortages categories but I doubt whether this related to chefs," Mr Little wrote.

"I was asked about Labour's policy on immigration generally. I said our approach was that as the economy slows there is a case to 'turn the tap down.'"

Mr Little said he repeated that statement when asked about the issue by political reporters yesterday.

Tracy Scott of Hospitality New Zealand said businesses were already struggling to find appropriately trained and skilled chefs.

She said Mr Little's suggestion the tap be turned down "will severely limit the industry's ability to access skilled migrant workers and meet the needs of New Zealand's growing tourism market".

"Tourism is booming and hospitality businesses have struggled for years to get any chefs, let alone specifically qualified ones. These skill shortages are only going to get worse as the economy improves and tourism numbers grow.

"Any limitations on the ability to employ suitably skilled migrants would severely limit the industry's ability to meet the growing demand."

Ms Scott said chefs had been on Immigration New Zealand's long-term skills shortages list for years

"The industry, many of them small businesses, have tried everything over the last 15 years, including employment programmes across the country focused on hospitality and funded by government, internal training via apprenticeship qualifications and hard earned, on the job training.

"The industry has a priority to employ New Zealanders, but they are simply not available in the numbers required and for restaurants that prepare ethnic food a very specific skill set is required. People want the real thing, prepared by skilled chefs who know what they are doing."

Jatinderjit Singh Grewal, who runs an Indian restaurant in Mt Maunganui, said he preferred to employ local chefs but he was struggling to find suitable candidates.

Prime Minister John Key said yesterday he "doesn't know where [Mr Little] is coming up with this stuff".

"I mean, honestly, we are a country based on migration. We welcome people, they do a good job, they work hard, we are a multi-cultural society."

- Additional reporting: Claire Trevett