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Immigration policies, when crafted and implemented, wield profound impacts on a nation’s economy, society, and future trajectory. The recent discourse surrounding potential changes to New Zealand’s immigration settings, as hinted by the National-led government’s Immigration Minister Erica Stanford, underscores the intricate balance required in such endeavours.

Stanford’s assertion of a shift towards prioritising high-skilled migrants over low-skilled ones reflects a common sentiment among policymakers aiming to align immigration with economic needs. However, a closer examination reveals the complexity and potential pitfalls inherent in such a strategy and the need for a cautionary and well-thought out approach. Too often have successive governments tinkered with the immigration settings creating confusion and opening loopholes for malpractice, as has happened in the previous Labour-led government’s Accredited Employer Work Visa scheme that the minister was quoted in the media as saying brought in nearly 52,000 “pretty unskilled people”.

The rhetoric of favouring high-skilled migrants inherently raises questions about the fate of low-skilled labour, essential for various sectors of the economy. Stanford’s emphasis on tightening visa rules for low-skilled workers implies a looming challenge: how to address labour shortages without exacerbating existing issues. There does not seem to be policy on this, at least as yet, that spells out what alternatives the government plans to put in place to fill in lower skilled job vacancies.

The Minister’s lamentation over the increase in low-skilled migrants coinciding with a rise in job seekers highlights a fundamental concern: the need for a comprehensive approach to workforce development. While restricting low-skilled immigration might ostensibly prioritise native workers, the reality is far more nuanced – as has been experienced by several governments over the years. It has never been easy to get New Zealanders on job seeker benefits into low skilled work down the years.

New Zealand has grappled with persistent welfare dependency and a reluctance among some segments of the population to enter the workforce. Simply curbing immigration without addressing underlying structural issues risks further entrenching these problems. Intergenerational welfare dependency cannot be solved overnight, and any immigration policy overhaul must be accompanied by robust strategies to encourage workforce participation and upward mobility.

Stanford’s proposal to tighten labour market tests and crack down on visa abuse is a step in the right direction. However, its efficacy hinges on meticulous implementation and a nuanced understanding of sector-specific needs. The construction sector’s example underscores the importance of targeted interventions tailored to unique industry dynamics.

Moreover, any reforms must consider the broader socio-economic implications, including the welfare of migrant workers and the integrity of New Zealand’s reputation as an inclusive and welcoming nation. Knee-jerk reactions driven solely by short-term political expediency risk undermining these values.

The Minister’s pledge to incorporate findings from ongoing reviews into future policy decisions is encouraging. It underscores the importance of evidence-based policymaking and a willingness to adapt strategies in light of empirical data.

But the timeline for implementing changes, particularly those with far-reaching consequences, warrants careful scrutiny. Rushing into policy adjustments without adequate deliberation and stakeholder engagement risks unintended consequences and missed opportunities for constructive dialogue.

In essence, while the need to reassess immigration settings in line with evolving economic realities is undeniable, the path forward must be treaded with caution and foresight. Addressing labour shortages and promoting native workforce participation requires more than just restrictive visa policies; it demands a holistic approach encompassing education, training, social support, and economic incentives.

As New Zealand contemplates its immigration future, the immigration minister and government policy makers would do well to not lose sight of the fact that sustainable progress is not born of haste but of deliberate, inclusive, and compassionate governance. While the intent to prioritise getting Kiwis into jobs over migrants, especially in lower skilled work is laudable, the ground realities must be considered. Only through approaches that take on board the needs and urgencies of small business employers – the very backbone of the New Zealand economy – can we navigate the complexities of immigration reform while safeguarding the prosperity and well-being of Kiwis.

First appeared in the Indian Weekender of 22 February 2024.
https://www.indianweekender.co.nz/columns/cherry-picking-migrants-sounds-all-good-but-is-nz-ready