It is time to do more to ensure our aged-care providers are supported to provide the best possible care for our most vulnerable citizens. After several years' hard lobbying for immigration policies that enable rather than hinder aged residential care providers, it seems the Government has come to its senses.
Immigration Minister Iain Lees Galloway's recent proposed changes to the employer-assisted temporary visa system are a welcome response to the needs of not only the aged-care sector, but also others that rely heavily on migrant labour.
In aged care, migrant workers make an incredible and increasingly crucial contribution for which every New Zealander should be grateful.
Rather than focusing on reducing immigration, the New Zealand Aged Care Association has fought for policies that help aged-care providers recruit and retain this valued workforce to fill gaps in local supply.
The minister's proposals are a positive step in the right direction taking a pragmatic new regionalised and sector-specific approach.
Most pleasing is the shift to an employer-led system, where "accredited" employers will be responsible for visa applications and renewals rather than migrant workers. This will simplify and speed up the current convoluted process and provide employers with more control over their workforce and greater certainty.
It will also put greater onus on employers to meet their obligations with Immigration New Zealand as good employers, and that is right and good.
The other major change we applaud is introducing regional skills shortage lists so that migrants work where there is a genuine shortage, delivering the flexibility needed and greater certainty for employers. This system will also see the onerous and ineffective annual labour market test removed for those occupations that make it on to the new regional shortage list.
We're also cautiously optimistic about the proposed sector agreements with the Government, giving so-called "accredited" employers easier access to migrant workers in return for the sector committing to employ and train New Zealanders and reduce reliance on temporary migrant workers over time.
The aged-care sector is already strongly focused on working with both the Ministry of Social Development and Work and Income to get Kiwis into work, including a current initiative working with health recruitment company MedCall, contracted by the ministry to help aged care providers get Kiwis into roles.
The good news for us is that the minister has indicated aged care will be one of two sectors that are the first cabs off the rank in negotiating industry agreements — a strong acknowledgement of the significant supply issues we face.
Plaudits too for the minister's promise to review the three-year stand down period, which, as is, will see a first wave of committed migrant caregivers having to leave New Zealand in 2020, interrupting continuity of care, creating significant employer strife and devastating these migrants' lives.
So while there is some detail to work through, we welcome the minister's proposals.
But we still have a perfect storm in the aged-care workforce, with 3.9 per cent unemployment nationally and an ageing demographic as people live longer and come into care older with higher care needs. So, despite all our best efforts, we just can't find Kiwis to work for us.
The regional shortage lists will help once developed. But right now, we have a nursing shortage crisis in aged-care facilities, a New Zealandwide situation that can't wait for a list to be developed.
We need action now to address the desperate shortages as nurses continue to leave rest homes in droves for better pay at district health boards in the wake of DHBs' multi-employer collective agreement for nurses last year.
While some larger providers have been able to match DHB rates, the vast majority are not funded to compete with the $5 to $6 an hour extra paid at DHBs.
Addressing this requires immediately putting aged-care nurses back on the long-term skills shortages list, removing current barriers to recruiting internationally trained nurses.
And secondly, it is time for pay parity between aged-care nurses and nurses who work in hospitals and a common workforce pool including orderlies and other staff across both sectors.
New Zealanders need to question why, as a society, we accept placing greater value on nurses who care for people in hospitals than those nurses who care for people in rest homes? The roles and responsibilities are the same, arguably even greater for aged-care nurses who do not have access to the large clinical support teams as in hospitals.
The Government has responded well with these new proposals. It is time to do more to ensure our aged-care providers are supported to provide the best possible care for our most vulnerable citizens.
Simon Wallace is chief executive of the New Zealand Aged Care Association.
Dialogue Contributions are welcome and should be 700-800 words. Send your submission to firstname.lastname@example.org. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.