Canterbury migrant workers worried about impacts of immigration policy changes
When Dave Sevilleno came to Christchurch in 2008, he spent three months living in a run-down one-bedroom unit with up to nine others.
The Filipino immigrant found cutlery and cooking utensils from the rubbish bins behind a Salvation Army and slept on a bunk bed with his feet touching the unit's microwave.
Nine years later, Sevilleno runs the dementia unit at Christchurch's Diana Isaac retirement village, a complex role that requires a certain temperament for success. It's not a job anyone can do.
Since moving here he has been joined by his wife, who is a nurse. The couple have two young New Zealand-born children. On Monday, Sevilleno receives his citizenship.
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An hour drive to the south-west, Fijian immigrants Abaramo Mono "AB" Borisi and his cousin, Asaeli Koroi, work on a dairy farm near the shores of Lake Ellesmere.
The farm, which milks about 1000 cows, has six workers – three of whom were born overseas.
The cousins are softly spoken, always smiling. They feel blessed for their opportunities in this country.
AB came over on a rugby visa to play for Southbridge Rugby Football Club in 2009. He has since married locally and started a family, while working his way up to herd manager.
Koroi came over on a temporary work visa in February 2016, working as a farm assistant on the same farm. He played for Southbridge until an ACL injury forced him out of the game.
Sevilleno, AB and Koroi are making lives for themselves and contributing to the community while working in roles employers struggle to fill from the New Zealand labour pool.
Incoming changes to New Zealand's immigration policy will make it more difficult for similar candidates to come and call New Zealand home.
IMMIGRATION POLICY CHANGING
In April, Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse announced proposed changes aiming to manage the quality and number of migrants coming into New Zealand.
Suggested measures would force workers on temporary visas to leave for at least a year after three years in the country, and introducing an income threshold for those on Essential Skills visas who want to stay longer.
The proposal saw a backlash from local government and the private sector.
The Canterbury Mayors Forum sent a letter to Woodhouse and Prime Minister Bill English expressing concerns about the proposal. They asked for policy with less focus on Auckland issues and more on regional needs.
National have since watered down the proposal, changing some parameters such as reducing the income threshold from the median New Zealand income to 85 per cent of the median – currently $41,538. The new policy starts August 28.
In the year ending June 30, the government issued 34,521 temporary Essential Skills visas for migrant workers planning to work throughout New Zealand. This is up from 23,950 issued by the same time in 2013.
The number of these visas issued for immigrants wanting to work in Canterbury climbed for four of the last five financial years, peaking at 7602 in the year ending June 30 2016. That has since dropped back to 6004 for 2017.
Projections show Canterbury needs about 106,000 migrants over the next 15 years, or about 6600 people yearly, which is similar to post-quake levels and well above historic levels of 3500 a year.
For Canterbury, key industries that rely on migrant labour in positions considered low skill include farming and aged care.
"A ONE-BOOT FITS ALL THING DOESN'T WORK"
Canterbury farmers are reliant on migrant workers to keep their farms going, as they cannot find Kiwis for the jobs.
There were 3619 Essential Skills visas issued nationally for farm, forestry and garden workers and farmers and farm managers during the year ending June 30 2017.
Almost a third of those visas were for the Canterbury region – 1306 in total. This is up on the 765 issued for Canterbury in the year end June 30 2013, with numbers increasing gradually over the last five years.
For AB, living and working here is a dream come true.
"What I've always wanted, growing up back in Fiji, is to have kids and raise them somewhere they will have access to opportunities."
He has got what he always wanted, living with Kiwi wife Kylie and their two young children, with a third on the way.
It was through AB that Koroi ended up in the country.
"I was his best man at his wedding, and he called me into his room and said 'do you want to work in New Zealand?' And I couldn't refuse the offer," said Koroi."
A dairy farmer back in Fiji, Koroi found it challenging to adapt to Kiwi conditions and methods, but loves working on the farm.
He said he feels part of the local community, is comfortable in his new home, but worries his visa will not be renewed.
AB was recently involved in trying to find a new farm worker. He said it was "just so hard to find Kiwis".
There were lots of migrant workers interested in the role, but the "stressful" and "tedious" visa process was a barrier to hiring them.
He thought the policy changes, especially the three-year limit for some visas, would put a lot of stress on farm owners and might make workers think twice about applying for jobs.
"When you get them through this course, you've taught them so much . . . and at the end of it, you have to send them back home. I just can't understand that bit."
"To be sent home for a year, or even more, you lose touch and you lose the trade bit by bit over time."
Federated Farmers North Canterbury president Lynda Murchison said after three years, workers became "really valuable". Forcing them to leave at that point seemed "short-sighted".
"It seems a bit counterproductive to me, because you can't just walk into the farm and do the job."
She said policy makers have focused very much on Auckland and have not thought about the ramifications in the regions.
"Trying to do a one-boot fits all thing doesn't work."
People needed to realise migrant workers were a necessity for the industry as they could not get enough Kiwis to fill the jobs, Murchison said.
"A long-term issue we need to look at as why our young people don't want to work in an industry in which we are the best in the world."
"NOT EVERYBODY HAS THE HEART TO CARE"
Like farming, the aged care industry needs migrant labour to fill jobs Kiwis do not seem to want.
Of the 22,000 aged care workers in New Zealand, an estimated 6000 are working on a visa.
In Canterbury there are an roughly 3600 caregivers. As of May there were 530 "aged or disabled carers" working in Canterbury on Essential Skills visas – about 15 per cent.
More than half the workers on the dementia unit Sevilleno manages are migrants.
Sevilleno has become attached to his residents, who thrive on consistency and deteriorate if their carers change regularly.
"You can't have another person looking after your mum every year."
He said anyone could do the tasks required to be a caregiver, but "not everybody has the heart to care".
"Being a caregiver, experience wise, we have to upskill ourselves and after three years we're probably going to be becoming a senior caregiver – we've done all the training.
"What will be our incentive, if we're going to be sent home for a year? I would go back, to be honest."
Currently, two regular staff on the ward are unable to work while their visas are processed. One has been waiting seven weeks, with no income through that time.
The Diana Isaac retirement village, where Sevilleno works, is owned by Ryman Healthcare, which operates 31 villages employing 4000 people nationally. About a third of their employees are migrants.
Chief executive Gordon MacLeod said they were concerned about the immigration policy because it took time to train staff in their organisation, and worried migrants would not go for the jobs if they knew they would be sent home later.
"Standing down for a year is essentially just having to go permanently. That's the reality."
New Zealand Aged Care Association Chief Executive Simon Wallace said he was "very concerned" about the Government's immigration proposals because the industry could not always employ New Zealanders, despite "doing their utmost" to employ Kiwis.
"We had one expo where there were 238 who came up to the stand, there were 143 expressions of interest … they were only able to employ one New Zealander from that," said Wallace.
"They just weren't suitable."
Wallace said many migrant workers made very good care workers because of the "nature of the cultures" which they come from.
"They have a care ethos which is extremely valuable to us."
PUTTING THE CHANGES INTO CONTEXT
Lane Neave immigration partner Mark Williams said he thought the government's changes would "resolve the ongoing problem" of people in lower skilled roles staying here for years on temporary visas with no clear path to residency.
He said although the changes to the residency process were well thought through, the government may have underestimated the negative impact the temporary visa changes would have. The revisions went some way towards softening it.
Williams said the reality was young Kiwis did not want to get into positions where the "3 Ds" apply – jobs that are dirty, dangerous, or disruptive to social lives.
He said for some roles New Zealand was struggling to fill, unemployed Kiwis could be put into the positions, but they would not be the right people for the role.
A common misconception in the public was it was easy to hire migrants, which was not the case as it had to be proved there were no Kiwis available to be hired or trained before a migrant could be offered the role, Williams said.
For most employers, hiring a Kiwi was a "much easier proposition", he said.
"The absolute majority of employers that we deal with, if they could pick a New Zealand citizen over a migrant, they would do it in a heartbeat."
A lot of migrants did not appreciate the intention was for them to fill a temporary gap in the workforce, said Williams.
"The hard reality of the migrant program is, if you don't convert to residency, you're on a temporary work visa, and temporary means temporary.
"So you are at the whim of that temporary position, and the market conditions that will either allow or not allow that temporary right to work to continue when you apply for an extension."