The Government is looking at letting thousands of migrant workers stay in New Zealand longer to ease their plight in the wake of unprecedented border closures.

An announcement is likely to come next week as officials look at how many foreign workers this may affect.

This would include those on the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) Scheme and those on temporary lower-wage visas who would normally have to leave New Zealand for a year after having worked here for three years.

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Many of the thousands of RSE workers - just under half of the maximum 14,400 workers for the 2019/20 season had arrived by the end of January - are from the Pacific and their families' livelihoods depend on work in New Zealand.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announces New Zealand's borders will be closed to everyone except citizens and residents. Video / Pool

As anxious migrant workers grapple with the reality of closed borders and a reshuffling of the workforce, with New Zealand workers first in the queue, the Government is considering which temporary work visas can be extended, and which lower-wage workers could have their one-year sabbatical pushed out.


Around 40,000 of the 200,000-strong migrant workforce have their work visas ending or up for review in the next six months, with 25,000 such visas set to expire in the next month alone.

This comes as a major New Zealand horticulture growing and distributing company warns of the "acute" labour market and the struggle to find staff.

Last night, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said there could be some migrant workers who may be considered essential workers and, as such, would be exempt from the border shutdown.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said Immigration NZ can consider new visas or a change to visa conditions in certain circumstances, such as if a foreign worker cannot return home.

"Immigration NZ aims to be flexible and compassionate on these issues and will work on a case-by-case basis," Lees-Galloway said.

"We do need to be aware that there will likely be more New Zealanders looking for work as the economic impact hits and New Zealanders are prioritised for work where possible, as happens normally."

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Meanwhile, immigration lawyer and former Alliance MP and Minister Matt Robson has called on the Government to extend the visas for all migrant workers and refugees for six months.

In an open letter to Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway, Robson said the Government should consider an automatic extension for all visas, a cessation of compliance action and assurance of health care for all.

Seeka chief executive Michael Franks said the labour satiation in New Zealand right now is "acute" as has been exacerbated by the closure of the border.

"Pretty much if you walk in the door at the moment and you want to work, we will sign you up," he told the Herald.

He said that was the story across all Seeka's site.

Franks said in total, Seeka needed more than 500 workers within two weeks.

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NZ Kiwifruit Growers chief executive Nikki Johnson told RNZ the border closures will have a significant impact on the horticulture sector.

"The border has been closed to the Pacific and that's where a large number of our RSE workers come from – those workers are particularly important for us."

She added that they come for about seven months during the season and provide a "real stability" to the sector.

She called on the Government to provide flexibility when it comes to RSE workers' visas and said she will be talking to the Immigration Minister about this issue.

But Malcolm Pacific Immigration director David Cooper said the industry was already moving to hire New Zealanders who have lost their jobs as a result of Covid-19.

And he expected to see more of this happening as more New Zealanders lose their jobs, while the horticulture sector is desperate for workers.

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