Our approach to immigration is a disgrace

A immigrant worker is happy to do work New Zealanders scorn.

A immigrant worker is happy to do work New Zealanders scorn.

OPINION: Before I venture once again into the topic of immigration, we should consider a couple of sobering facts about our country.

The first is the Christchurch rebuild and dairy farming in the South Island would collapse overnight if workers here on working visas were told to go home.

The second is that rest homes and retirement villages around the country would have to shut down if their Filipino workforce was told to pack their bags.

Filipino dairy workers like Ireneo Molina are vital to the dairy industry.

Filipino dairy workers like Ireneo Molina are vital to the dairy industry.

God only knows how many businesses taking advantage of cheap overseas labour and instant skills, developed and paid for by other countries, would fail if migrants were told to leave.  

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It is against that backdrop that any discussion on immigration must take place. Such a discussion should also recognise that our immigration policies are shameful, mercenary and crass.

You would think that a country like New Zealand which has essentially been built on immigration and which has one of the lowest population densities in the world would be fairly relaxed about allowing more people in.

We don't have hordes arriving on our shores in dilapidated boats, we don't have disaffected cliques of immigrants scheming of ways to kill and maim, we don't have huge crime problems or welfare dependency among immigrant groups and we don't have high unemployment so that people would be justifiably concerned about outsiders coming in and taking jobs.

In other words we have none of the problems which make immigration such a pivotal issue in the rise of populist movements in Britain, Europe and the United States.

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And yet, immigration will be one of the hot button issues in the coming election and parties are falling over themselves to look hard-nosed. What an unseemly mess.

National, keen to be seen to be listening to the people, has been busy changing the rules since October last year.

This week it announced another raft of changes, effective from August 14, making it harder for migrants seeking skilled migrant visas. For instance, they will need to show the job they have signed up for in New Zealand pays more than about $49,000.

It's not hard to instantly spot some flaws. A yearly wage of $49,000 (hourly rate of about $25 for 40-hour week) for an experienced skilled migrant is a fairly modest requirement if it's skills you are after. And just watch the minimum salaries paid by employers who want migrant workers suddenly go up. 

Labour has yet to announce its detailed immigration policy but has already indicated it will go much further than National and NZ First will keep migrant numbers right down.

All this backsliding and shifting the goal posts is a disgraceful way to administer immigration. If I was thinking of coming to New Zealand, I would be tempted to tell the country to shove it.

The constant fiddling of immigration settings is a result of using immigration as a lever of economic management. Things are not going so good so let's turn on the immigration tap and give GDP a boost.

There must be better ways of treating people who want to come to this country, become citizens and contribute to the overall wellbeing of their adopted home. That is not to say the Government should turn a blind eye to the rorts, dodges and fiddles (eg overseas students doing low level study) but any idiot should have been able to prevent those in the first place.

One thing we have to decide as a country is what we, the locals, the natives, want from immigration.

Do we only want migrants who can create new opportunities and help expand business?

Do we want cheap labour to keep the locals honest and the economy competitive and inflation low?

Do we want the policy to have some moral integrity so that our immigration polices are more about offering new homes to people who really need them?

To start with we need to know whether immigration is actually any good for the country rather than individual businesses. Obviously increases in population expand the overall pie and relieve skill shortages but the jury is out on whether the country as a whole benefits. 

Our governments, who have to listen to complaints from businesses big and small that they can't get enough skilled staff, will generally argue that the importation of brains and skilled brawn will naturally be good for the country.

That makes sense except that the demand never diminishes and despite decades of importing skilled migrants we still have a very narrowly based economy and still struggle to pay our way in terms of exports and imports. That suggests that attracting skilled migrants is really just a dodgy, quick-fix solution when we should be concentrating on our education system, work training and worker remuneration.

The skilled migrant foundation of our whole immigration ethos appears to be missing the mark because skilled migrant workers are not that skilled. They don't seem to be commanding very high wages which suggests their cheapness rather than their skill level is the main attraction for employers.

The other way we can see that our skilled migrant-based policies are failing is the number of migrants doing menial jobs like cleaning, security and restaurant work. While it's true that many Kiwis are unsuitable for work for a variety of reasons, including indolence and bad attitude, locals will do these jobs but not for the money offered.

So this sort of immigration keeps wages low and helps widen the gap between the haves and have nots.

Once we settle some of these questions – in many ways it is already too late – we might be able to formulate an honest, clear, humane and, all importantly, a consistent approach to bringing people into the New Zealand family.

 - Stuff


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