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Bernard Hickey on our ‘kind’ country’s mean migration settings

New Zealand’s approach to migration has helped create a low-wage, low-productivity and low-wellbeing society for most. Bernard Hickey looks at why a quadrupling of temporary work visas in 15 years caused such grief, and how these visa rules should be changed to make everyone better off.


In the latest episode of When the Facts Change, Bernard Hickey talks to economist Julie Fry and Anu Kaloti from the Migrant Workers’ Association about how New Zealand is failing to live up to its image as a kind country when it comes to temporary migration. Subscribe and listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.


Back in early April last year when prime minister Jacinda Ardern was appealing to the “team of five million” to “be kind” to each other during the first hard lockdown, a carpenter from the Philippines, his wife and their seven-year-old son were beginning to understand what those slogans actually meant for them as holders of temporary work and student visas.

Jeffrey Santos grew up in the Philippines and became a carpenter. He married Marjorie when he was 21 and she was 20. They had their first and only son, James, in the Philippines in 2013. Then Santos, the provider, left them behind in the Philippines in 2015 to work for three years as a carpenter in Qatar. It was a hard life. The Gulf state has become notorious for the way it has allowed temporary workers from the Philippines, India and elsewhere to be abused, exploited, underpaid, overworked and injured while working on the massive projects being built for the 2022 World Cup, and as domestic servants.

By 2018, Santos wanted to leave Qatar and find somewhere else to build a life with his young family. He heard about a place a long way away that seemed to want people with his skills. It sounded like a haven. A place of hope. New Zealand desperately needed skilled carpenters to build houses, particularly in the boom towns of central Otago and during Christchurch’s rebuild. Builders and labour agencies appealed for tradespeople from the Philippines to come to New Zealand for the easygoing lifestyle, good wages and the vague hope of permanent residency. Jeffrey Santos managed to get a sponsored temporary work visa (called an essential skills visa) and arrived on his own to start work in September 2018.

In February last year, the family was finally reunited after six years of living apart, when Marjorie and James Santos arrived in New Zealand. Santos’s family could come because they were granted temporary work and student visas respectively that were linked to his (still) temporary work visa. It was then renewed for another three years. The Santos family dreamed of proving the long-run essentialness of their skills and getting permanent residency visas and building a life in New Zealand.

Then Covid hit. Santos lost his job as a carpenter and his income collapsed. They were living in Cromwell because the housing was cheaper there, but the lockdown meant they weren’t able to drive anywhere. He wasn’t able to apply for any benefit or emergency help from the Ministry of Social Development because people on temporary work visas were deemed by the ministry to not be eligible under the existing law for such payments, even though there is a clause allowing the government to designate them as eligible. Short of food, Santos initially applied to the Queenstown Lakes District Council (QLDC) for an emergency food voucher with his Cromwell address, but was told he wasn’t in the district and would have to apply to the Central Otago District Council (CODC).

On April 9, he applied online to the CODC and got a $150 voucher, but he knew it would not be enough for at least six weeks of lockdown for three people. The grants were only one-off grants and the CODC only gave $150 vouchers. So later that day Jeffrey Santos made a decision he has lived to regret. He applied to the QLDC again for help, but this time gave a Queenstown address. He was then given a $400 voucher to buy food at New World Wakatipu.

By April 16, the Santos family was out of food again, but knew that the vouchers were one-offs. So Jeffrey Santos gave another false address in Queenstown to get another $400 voucher and answered “no” on the form when asked if he had applied previously for the one-off voucher. He did that twice more later in April and May, bringing the total of food vouchers given to the Santos family to $1,600.

Then the lockdowns slowly lifted through May and June and Jeffrey Santos was able to get some work and pay his own way. But the damage had been done.

In September last year, Santos was found guilty of “using a document for pecuniary advantage”, which is what is often referred to as fraud. Santos offered to repay $1,000, which was all he had, but the plea for leniency from his defence lawyer Paige Noorland was not accepted.

“He was struggling to feed his family,” Noorland told Alexandra District Court judge Jim Large at the sentencing hearing.

Justice Large took a different view. He described the offending as “mean”.

“I think it’s quite despicable. You might have had a need, but it could have been dealt with in an honest way,” Justice Large said.

Like most others in New Zealand, I hadn’t heard about this conviction in September last year. It was reported plainly in the Central Otago pages of the Otago Daily Times on September 19. But as it happened, shortly before then I was asking Ardern and social development minister Carmel Sepuloni about what the government could do to help thousands of temporary work visas who were in dire straits without any income or welfare support. That includes this example of a family who were given a can of beans to last the lockdown. Shortly before then, Queenstown District mayor Jim Boult described the situation there as a “humanitarian crisis”.

Ardern and Sepuloni defended their decision not to extend MSD support through April, May and June to those temporary visa holders at the time, saying the food parcels being offered by local councils were sufficient, and they were working on a longer-term measure. Eventually, in June last year, foreign minister Winston Peters announced $37.6m would be provided through the Department of Internal Affairs and the Red Cross to support those on temporary work visas, but still no direct financial support would be provided. It was nowhere near enough for the 12,321 people who used it, and it expired at the end of November. Finally, in late November, Sepuloni relented and designated people on temporary work visas as eligible for an emergency benefit until February 28. It has since been extended until August 31 and will then lapse again.

Then Immigration NZ found out and it ordered the deportation of the Santos family back to the Philippines. This was at a time when the construction industry was pleading for Immigration NZ to allow more construction workers to be let into the country to build houses and infrastructure for houses.

In January, the Santos family appealed the deportation, but that was then rejected in this decision by Justice Peter Spiller of the Immigration and Protection Tribunal:

“The tribunal acknowledges the difficult financial circumstance in which the appellants found themselves during the Covid-19 alert level four lockdown period, and the husband’s expression of regret for his offending,” Justice Spiller wrote.

“However, the fact of his offending is not disputed, and Immigration New Zealand acted within the law and with due process in issuing deportation liability notices as a result,” he wrote, pointing out their temporary status meant they should have had no expectation of staying.

“The appellants entered and have remained in New Zealand on temporary visas without legitimate expectation of, or entitlement to, ongoing immigration status here,” he added.

“They have not been in New Zealand for an extended period of time, and their contribution to the New Zealand economy through the husband’s employment here has been at a modest level.”

Justice Spiller wrote he acknowledged the Santos family would face a period of readjusting to their life in the Philippines, and that the Covid-19 pandemic placed added difficulties on their return to the Philippines.

“However, the appellants have lived in the Philippines for most of their lives and are well familiar with the language, culture and lifestyle there. The husband has worked there as a carpenter (an occupation with readily transferable skills), and his experience in Qatar and then New Zealand should assist him to find employment in the Philippines again.”

The Santos family had argued in their appeal that they would have to return to a country wracked by Covid with no work and an unravelling social fabric.

Justice Spiller was unmoved.

“Both the husband and the wife have their parents and siblings living in the Philippines, and so should have at least emotional support there,” he wrote.

“There is no evidence that the appellants have particular vulnerabilities that make the impact of the pandemic exceptionally adverse for them. Should the husband again acquire employment, he may be in a position to resume financial assistance to his brother-in-law and wider family.”

However, he did give the Santos family another three months until mid-April to leave because getting return flights was difficult. That reprieve is due to end about now. It’s not clear if they left.

I tell this story in detail if only to illustrate the way we have asked people to work for us, and then treated them as not the same as “us” when the chips were down.

This week the Productivity Commission recommended the government review our migration settings to see if having the highest rate of temporary work visas in the OECD has made Aotearoa-New Zealand’s economy and people more productive and happier. It was a big news tree that fell in the forest, emphasising just how controversial the issue has become. The commission itself didn’t even mention the recommendation, which was by far the most significant in a range of recommendations from its inquiry into the “frontier” of the economy. I quote it in full because it hasn’t been reported much anywhere else.

“If the government wishes to give greater priority to lifting the productivity of New Zealand’s actual and potential frontier firms, it should review and adjust migration policy settings,” the commission wrote in its final report on New Zealand Firms: Reaching for the Frontier.

“This review would consider the optimal level and mix of permanent and temporary migrants to support innovation and productivity, in the context of a broader population strategy. It would assess the role and objectives of migration policy, together with New Zealand’s education and training system, in meeting firms’ demand for labour. Humanitarian immigration, such as refugees and asylum seekers, would be outside the scope of the review,” it wrote.

“The review would consider how migration policies can best contribute to attracting and retaining the right skilled migrants to grow New Zealand’s current and future frontier firms.

“In relation to low-skilled and temporary migrant workers, the review should look to reduce inflows of these workers over time. The government will need to work collaboratively with industries that currently rely on seasonal migrant labour, to develop a planned transition away from such reliance and determine the role of government in supporting that transition. This may include supporting industries to accelerate the development of automation and other labour-saving technologies, build the necessary skill base for higher-tech production practices, and make jobs more attractive to domestic workers.

“Any review must be based on New Zealand’s particular circumstances, now and into the future. It should consider the optimal level and mix of permanent and temporary migrants to support innovation and productivity, in the context of a broader population strategy; and assess the role and objectives of migration policy, together with New Zealand’s education and training system, in meeting firms’ demand for labour.” (The bolding is mine.)

In this week’s “When the facts change” podcast, I talk to economist Julie Fry, who wrote this report for the commission, and migrant workers’ activist Anu Kaloti. They talk about the need for reform, both to improve our economic performance and to treat our guests fairly and humanely. I hope you subscribe and listen. It’s full of useful, if somewhat abstract, discussion about the issues around temporary migration.

But sometimes a particular story about how people are treated by the system can tell us just as much.

PS: Qatar reformed its temporary migration settings last year after years of protest by Amnesty International and others. It removed the right of employers to block workers from leaving their jobs and going elsewhere. New Zealand employers still have that right to “own” the migrants here on that sponsored work visa. Workers cannot move without their approval, or the visa lapses and they must leave New Zealand. New Zealand’s settings are now less humane than Qatar’s.




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