The Government is willing to tweak immigration policy to bring in migrant workers so it can deliver 100,000 homes for Kiwis but what is it doing to deliver on aged residential care for older Kiwis?
It's no secret that like the construction industry and KiwiBuild, aged residential care faces a big challenge recruiting enough people to meet demand, relying on a valued pool of migrant workers to fill the deficit.
That workforce is under jeopardy from current immigration policy settings as the sector looks to recruit an additional 1000 new caregivers each year to care for the predicted swell in New Zealand's older population.
Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway this week confirmed immigration policy will need some tweaks to allow more migrant "tradies" into the country during the building boom. What is he going to do about the workforce crisis on the horizon for our aged residential care sector? It is a sector where, even now, some 27 per cent of the labour force is on some type of visa.
The minister has acknowledged the red flag our sector has waved as providers face increasing struggles to recruit and retain caregivers and the role immigration policy plays in that.
Indeed, it's not just about policy settings. Our latest survey indicates that, operationally, things are slipping at Immigration New Zealand with 63 per cent of our members citing extensive delays in worker visa renewals over the last year; leaving everyone in limbo and impacting on management.
Our members do everything possible to recruit New Zealanders over migrant workers and are also working with the Ministry for Social Development to encourage New Zealanders into caregiving roles. But, it's not enough to fill the current caregiver deficit.
New Zealand needs policy settings that enable aged residential care providers to recruit and retain the valuable migrant workers. Currently, migrant caregivers in aged care will have to go home in less than three years' time. That is simply stupid when we have a labour shortage. It will compromise care, cost employers and hinder training and upskilling.
And, it will cause undue stress for vulnerable older people who need the stability and security of trusted relationships with their caregivers.
We know of caregivers who have been continually granted extensions to their initial essential skills visa and have now been working in New Zealand for over 12 years. The loss of these caregivers would be devastating to the sector, as it would not be possible to replace such skill and knowledge easily.
New Zealand's tougher immigration rules for migrant caregivers also risk driving skilled and capable migrant workers in key countries to other nations such as Canada where policies are friendlier.
Additionally, the highest caregiver qualification is now recognised as Level 4 on the New Zealand Qualifications Framework, equivalent to skill level 3 on the Australian and New Zealand standard classification of occupations (Anzsco) scale.
To date, the Anzsco scale, which Immigration New Zealand uses as a proxy for skills, has not been adjusted for many years and caregivers remain on Level 4, meaning they are not able to apply for residency under the skilled migrant visa category.
These caregivers may earn up to $50,000, whilst in other occupations recognised as Level 3 they may earn as little as $41,000 and still have pathway to residency. How can that be fair when the previous Government last year valued the caregiver workforce to the tune of $2 billion with a well-deserved pay increase with the pay equity settlement?
The aged care sector is not an economic driver like the construction industry, but it is a major contributor to social GDP and a significant employer, particularly in the regions.
The Government has talked about having a social conscience and our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, glows empathy and humanity – especially for children and rightly so.
But we need to reflect on how we care for our older citizens.
Let's see the Government deliver on aged care as it is doing for housing, by ensuring our aged care providers can recruit the right people to deliver the care all older New Zealanders need and deserve.
• Simon Wallace is chief executive of the New Zealand Aged Care Association.