OPINION: New Zealand shutting its borders on March 19 hit everyone hard. Closing the door to work visa holders, among others, has created particular problems for employers trying to recruit and retain staff.
Many New Zealanders have returned since our borders closed, but only a trickle of temporary entrants have been allowed entry for ‘critical purposes’. The Immigration New Zealand (INZ) website shows that just 9,300 people have been approved since March.
This has severely limited New Zealand employers’ ability to fill gaps in their workforce.
The Government has partially addressed this by giving six-month extensions of work visas for people already working in New Zealand. But what happens when workers choose to leave their jobs to return home, or for some other reason?
Ankur Sabharwal is the owner of immigration advisory Visa Matters.
I spoke to employers in various industries – recruitment, banking/finance, IT, and construction – and the consensus is that it is tougher to retain skilled overseas workers, and increasingly difficult to replace them with local workers if they do leave.
Employers are effectively required to replace committed, high-performing staff with a New Zealander who may be minimally qualified for a role and may decide to leave soon after.
Each time an employee’s work visa is about to expire, their employer must advertise the position and make genuine attempts to recruit a New Zealander to fill the position.
This is in spite of the work visa holder being employed on a permanent employment agreement – as required by law in most cases – and irrespective of the worker’s performance in the role. They can be a star, but their role must be advertised and a less qualified person may take it.
This is unfair to both the overseas worker and the employer, and of no real long-term benefit to the New Zealander who took the job, if they don’t intend to make a career out of it.
Here’s a scenario that’s played out again and again in workplaces across the country: A valuable overseas worker leaves, the employer invests time and money in training a New Zealander, who then leaves within months or even weeks. ‘Kiwis take jobs a little lightly compared with migrant workers,’ was one employer’s comment to me.
To be clear, I’m not disputing a Kiwi’s right to leave a job, but employers should not be forced to hire people who are not committed to their industry or the role.
INZ seems to expect (and is indeed requiring) employers to make the same mistake repeatedly – spend time, effort and money on hiring people who are looking for a short-term job – while prohibiting them from retaining a dedicated employee who is already on staff and performing well.
One employer I know had their application to become INZ accredited turned down, partly because their company chose not to employ a New Zealander who lived in Christchurch but was unwilling to relocate to Auckland, where the role was based. INZ concluded that the company had not gone far enough to recruit a New Zealander for the position.
Employers are grateful for the Government’s decision to roll over work visas, and we support protecting job opportunities for New Zealanders, but we don’t want to lose good employees in favour of the minimally qualified and uncommitted.
I want to stress that this is not about paying less. Migrant workers earn the same rates and have the same protections as locals. It’s about employers trying to retain a stable and skilled workforce, ensuring a better business for themselves and their customers.
So what’s the answer?
How about letting companies who mostly employ Kiwis have some leeway in their hiring decisions without jumping through too many hoops? If a company mostly hires New Zealanders, and has shown they are committed to doing so, let them hire a few employees on work visas without justifying each hire with a mile of paperwork and red tape.
I also feel that this is not the right time to raise the median wage threshold for three-year work visas from $25.50 per hour to $27 per hour, as the Government is considering to do.
The Government has shown some willingness to listen and be flexible. But I’d like to see a lot more engagement with businesses, to ensure that work visa policy reflects the real pressures that employers face retaining and recruiting workers to fill gaps in their workforce.