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Source: Massey University

Sociologist and demographer Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley ponders New Zealand’s immigration management in the COVID context (photo:Lisanto/Unsplash)

Sectors, employers and some local body politicians are asking the Government to return to pre-COVID levels of immigration because of current labour and skill shortages. Business leader and media commentator Bruce Cotterill (Herald, 22 May) adds to the debate, especially, he argues, because there are not the New Zealanders who are prepared to fill these vacancies.

The immediate issue is how to manage migration while ensuring that COVID is kept at bay via strict border controls. But the longer-term questions concern what sort of migrants and in what numbers. I would also add questions about the reliance of some sectors and some employers on migrant labour along with the need to consider the welfare of those migrants.

The period from 2013 to 2020 proved to be an extremely unusual period in terms of our migration history. The years of the Global Financial Crisis had seen very modest net gains (38,000 immigrants) with two of those years – 2011 and 2012 – seeing net losses, especially to Australia. 

The arrival numbers and net gains started to climb from 2013 and in the year to June 2020 (bearing in mind that this included three months of lockdown), the net migrant gain was an all-time high of 79, 400 with 153,900 arrivals. These numbers only concern permanent arrivals (some of whom have transitioned from temporary visa status).

Then there are those here on temporary work visas. At the point of lockdown in March 2020, there were 221,298 temporary workers in the country. To this figure should be added those who were here on a study visa (another 81,999) as their visa conditions allowed them to work – as many did.

What is significant about these numbers of temporary migrants is that they had doubled in seven years and now easily outnumbered those approved as permanent residents. 

In 2019, prior to lockdown, the net gain of migrants was 11.4 per 1000 New Zealanders compared to Australia where the figure was 6.2 per 1000 Australians. 

These are very high figures. It is now apparent that a number of sectors – horticulture, IT, eldercare, dairying, construction – rely on migrant labour, with often a third or more of their workforce as migrants, many on temporary visas.

These temporary numbers have declined from 303,297 in March 2020 to 240,465 (according to MBIE) by April 2021, mostly because of the substantial drop in those here on a study visa.

Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley says pre-COVID immigration levels are unsustainable.


Can we – or should we – return to these pre-COVID numbers?

Cotterill asks whether we have New Zealanders prepared and willing to do the jobs currently done by migrants. In some cases, the answer is probably ‘no’, but then we should talk about the conditions of those jobs. I have long argued that if we extended some of the conditions currently offered to Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) workers – accommodation, transport, pastoral care – to New Zealanders, then we would get more interested in working, in this case in horticulture.

Cotterill points to the current low unemployment rate. But a more helpful figure is the under-utilisation rate (the untapped capacity in the labour market) which has risen sharply in the last year and now encompasses 366,000 people. 

COVID has made many skills or labour redundant or less in demand. One challenge is to transfer this labour to areas of demand.

The other issue is the reliance on temporary labour and the way in which we treat these migrants. A colleague, Professor Francis Collins, pointed out in 2017 that these workers find themselves having to navigate a complex set of rules – they cannot easily choose or change their employer due to their visa conditions and they cannot plan long term for their future, or that of their families. 

He, along with others of us, is concerned about the rights of temporary migrants and the predictability of the pathway to residence. And by the growing evidence of migrant worker exploitation, still fortunately relatively modest. 

Finally, there is the issue that the Productivity Commission has introduced – a reliance on temporary or low skilled migrant labour reduces the possibility of productivity gains, especially in relation to technological innovation.

I would argue that the pre-COVID migration rates, especially in terms of temporary migrants, are unsustainable. Yes, we need to debate numbers, priorities and conditions. And yes, we need to open up our borders to migrants again. But the model that had emerged by 2020 was distorting both local employer expectations and those of migrants.

Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley was a lead researcher on the Capturing Diversity Dividend of Aotearoa/New Zealand project funded by MBIE. This article was first published in the New Zealand Herald.

MIL OSI