Israeli-born Yael Shochat is the owner of much-loved Fort St institution Ima Cuisine. She writes about the essential role immigration plays in her restaurant – and why the Labour leader’s vow to slash immigrant numbers by ‘tens of thousands’ has her deeply worried.
Two years ago, after 17 years living here, I received my New Zealand citizenship. Now I can say that I am proud to be both a New Zealander and a first generation immigrant from Israel. In 1998 I followed my Kiwi husband here because as a scientist in Israel, a country with one of the highest science and engineering degrees per capita, he couldn’t find a job. When I arrived in Auckland I found the cultural scene to be, quite frankly, dull. As a lover of food I had the option of either pies, eggs benedict or sushi, if I was lucky. The Jewish community that offered me a feeling of home was – by numbers – absolutely miniscule. These were hangovers from a post World War II immigration policy that only “opened the door” to Brits while discriminating against poorer migrants and refugees.
I was determined to make something of my passion for food. In the 14 years since I started running restaurants and cafes specialising in Middle Eastern and Jewish cuisine, I have not only employed hundreds of Kiwis and immigrants alike, but I’d like to think I’ve had a hand in contributing to the new culinary renaissance in this city and left it a more exciting place than how I found it.
To Mr Andrew Little, and to dear Jacinda, whom I consider a friend: you’ve been to my restaurant, Ima Cuisine, many times. You’ve shared my company and enjoyed my most beloved dishes – immigrant food from all over the Jewish diaspora, and Palestinian food, the indigenous cuisine of my country. What are we going to say to each other next time you come in? Are you going to give “compliments to the chefs”, half of whom are not welcome here under your immigration policy? Am I welcome here? I certainly don’t feel welcome now that you’ve promised to cut “tens of thousands” of immigrants.
Your immigration policy (and the policy of the Greens and the National party) is based on racist tropes and stereotypes. Anti immigration sentiment is built on myths that don’t add up. We migrants are “lazy”, sucking up resources and putting a strain on the welfare system, and at the same time we work too hard – we are “stealing” jobs from “ordinary New Zealanders”.
This is false. Immigrants are largely young (considering we have an aging population this can’t be a bad thing), fit, and keen to work to better their lives. They are good people, they are healthy and they are paying tax. They are not a drain on society, they are holding it up! The jobs they are “stealing” are usually the ones Kiwis don’t want – low-paying and physically demanding. This unfortunately makes migrants more easily exploited by employers; that was certainly the case for some of my staff before they came to me. My business is not profitable by choice, because I choose to pay my staff well while trying to keep the price of my food competitive and affordable.
Let’s be frank here, times are tough. The poor working conditions in this country, the dire minimum wage, the long hours needed to survive will not be fixed by halting immigration. Cutting immigration will not ease the massive gap between rich and poor and it won’t increase the good 90 percent of incomes that have remained stagnant for 30 years.
One of the reasons you gave, Mr Little, for justifying an immigration cap was the infrastructure and housing crisis in Auckland. I’m fully aware of the crisis – I have three daughters who will soon struggle to pay off their student loans and most probably will never be in a position to own their own property. Immigrants too are hardly in a position to buy up all of Auckland. Stopping immigration will not fix our housing crisis – it won’t build more affordable homes and it won’t stop the wealthy few in our society purchasing a great deal of property as a way of accumulating massive wealth almost tax-free.
But we can safely say what these policies will do.
Right now I, my friends and peers in the restaurant industry are all crying out for kitchen and wait staff. Stopping immigration – while refusing to actually address the underlying causes of problems in the job and housing market – will mean I won’t be able to hire anyone. I won’t be able to cook for you anymore. Many other industries will also suffer.
Now we come to the elephant in the room. Mr Little, Jacinda – you know my background, so you know I am descended from people who suffered greatly from similar policies. As has happened before, when times get tough economically, the first people to be scapegoated and to blamed are immigrants and diaspora. This happened in the early 20th century in Europe and we all know how ugly that got. Stopping immigration won’t solve our problems but it will create more. Stopping immigration will divide our country and make it less safe.
Policies such as yours are dog whistles, mostly inaudible messages of demonisation and othering used for political gain. If you are looking for wealthier and “more qualified” migrants, the “tens of thousands” affected will be the most marginalised members of our immigrant communities: the poorer and, let’s face it – the browner. If today it is the case that even the left can be covertly racist, we are emboldening more overtly racist individuals, leaving them more space to spread their hatred and their violence. We are seeing this already. This year my third daughter has joined her sisters at the University of Auckland and the environment she faces on campus as a young Jewish woman is an ugly one. White supremacist groups have emerged, including the Auckland University European Students Association and now the “Western Guard,” an online group with an informal attachment to America’s fastest growing neo-Nazi organisation, the American Vanguard.
I understand that you are desperate for more votes this election, and sure, blaming immigrants for the ills of society is an easy way of getting them. So shift the blame on us as many have done before you. I just hope you’re ready to face the consequences.
The Spinoff Auckland is sponsored by Heart of the City, the business association dedicated to the growth of downtown Auckland as a vibrant centre for entertainment, retail, hospitality and business.