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In recent years, especially following the Covid-19 pandemic, New Zealand has witnessed an unprecedented surge in its population due to record levels of immigration. Faced with mounting pressure on infrastructure, housing, and social services, the National-led coalition government is now taking steps to address what it sees as unsustainable migration levels.

One of the key changes being introduced is a requirement for migrants, even those applying for low-skilled jobs, to demonstrate fluency and competency in English. While this move is aimed at aligning immigration policies with the country’s economic needs and prioritising the interests of New Zealanders, it also raises questions about fairness and inclusivity.

On the one hand, the emphasis on English proficiency seems to make sense. Proficiency in English has been linked to better integration into society, higher employability, and increased earning potential for migrants in English-speaking countries. This has been shown by numerous academic studies throughout the English speaking world. Reports indicate that migrants with strong English skills tend to secure better-paying jobs, thereby contributing positively to the economy. By prioritising highly skilled migrants who are proficient in English, New Zealand aims to address labour shortages in critical sectors while ensuring that newcomers can readily adapt to their new environment.

However, the requirement for English proficiency may inadvertently create barriers for competent individuals from non-English-speaking backgrounds. Many migrants come to New Zealand seeking opportunities for a better life, often escaping socio-economic challenges in their home countries. For these individuals, English proficiency may not necessarily reflect their abilities or potential contributions to the workforce. By imposing strict language requirements, New Zealand risks excluding a pool of talented individuals who could fill gaps in the labour market and enrich the country’s cultural fabric.

The intense focus on English proficiency overlooks the diverse skills and experiences that migrants bring to the table. Not all jobs require advanced language skills, and by prioritising language over other qualifications and learned and certified skills, New Zealand may miss out on valuable talent in sectors such as agriculture, hospitality, and construction. It is crucial to recognise that diversity in skills and backgrounds is essential for a thriving and innovative economy.

Finding the right balance between attracting skilled migrants and safeguarding the interests of local workers is undoubtedly a complex task. While it is essential to address concerns about population growth and strain on infrastructure, immigration policies should also uphold principles of fairness, inclusivity, and diversity. Instead of strongly focusing on English proficiency as a measure of suitability for migration, New Zealand should consider a more holistic approach that takes into account a range of factors, including work experience, qualifications, and cultural adaptability.

One possible solution could be to offer language support and integration programmes to migrants upon their arrival in New Zealand. By investing in language education and cultural orientation, the government can help newcomers overcome language barriers and integrate more effectively into society. Additionally, employers could be encouraged to provide language training and support to migrant workers, thus facilitating their transition into the workforce. The government has successfully run such schemes for several years in the past.

Also, the government should explore ways to streamline the immigration process and reduce bureaucracy, making it easier for employers to recruit skilled workers from overseas. Simplifying visa procedures and providing clearer pathways to residency would not only benefit businesses but also attract the talent needed to drive economic growth and innovation.

Ultimately, the goal should be to create an immigration system that is both selective and inclusive, one that attracts skilled individuals who can contribute to New Zealand’s prosperity while also supporting the integration and well-being of migrant communities. By striking a balance between economic priorities and social considerations, New Zealand can build a more sustainable and resilient future for all its residents.

First appeared in the 11 April 2024 edition of the Indian Weekender.