Brooke van Velden: NZ businesses struggle as Government leaves migrant workers in limbo

OPINION

This month, I’ve been on Act’s 46-stop Honest Conversations Tour across New Zealand.

At one meeting down south, I met a nurse who pleaded for my help. She explained that she hadn’t seen her 7-year-old daughter for more than a year. Like many migrant workers, she’s been separated from her family who are unable to join her in New Zealand because of restrictions on non-residents entering the country.

It’s meant missing her daughter’s birthdays, plaiting and combing her hair before bed, and scooping her up for hugs and kisses. She tightly clutched her immigration files and searched my face in desperation for any sign of good news. Should she hold on for another day, month, or year, or quit her job and go back overseas?

At a meeting in Auckland, I was told a similar story of a nurse who’d been separated from her 4-year-old son. A man described his pain of not yet having met his first child. His wife had wished to be with her family overseas for the birth and hadn’t been able to return. There have been no newborn cuddles, or time for him to bond with his child before he’ll be up running around.

I also met farmers and business owners who’re struggling to find skilled workers, unable to bring in staff from overseas.

A very tired cafe owner told me he’d cut back opening hours due to staff shortages. Others said their workers had left New Zealand in defeat as their ability to apply for residency had stalled and their future now seemed uncertain here.

When Covid hit and the border closed, we would have expected Immigration New Zealand to improve its systems, clear backlogs, process relevant visas and prepare for a gradual reopening for when it was safe to do so.

Instead, the system stalled.

With the borders shut, the Government announced that Covid presented an opportunity to “reset” immigration.

Now, those who hold temporary work visas and have lodged their “expression of interest” to apply for residency have no idea when anyone will look at their file. The minister hit the pause button and won’t give a timeline for when expression of interest selections will resume. As a result, they are piling up.

The “reset” has moved the goalposts for thousands of migrants and put their dreams of life in New Zealand in jeopardy.

While the process for selecting applications for residency is on hold, migrants have no timeline for when they can buy their family a home or open a bank account. If their children finish school, they’re unable to legally work until the family are granted residency.

Immigration reform may be needed in the future but right now the focus should be on certainty.

Businesses and farmers are needing to bring in skilled workers to grow, or in some cases just continue, while highly skilled migrants, like doctors, are living with uncertainty about whether they can stay.

The Government speaks of kindness, but it is not kind to leave migrants in a state of limbo. I’m not surprised some have given up waiting entirely and are moving away.

It’s not just kindness the Government has forgotten, it’s fairness.

Look at what happened with Google billionaire Larry Page. We should be attracting people who can invest in New Zealand but the perception of this stinks. Why has one category been fast-tracked while others have their lives in limbo? It took Page just months to get residency, others are waiting years.

We need to focus on giving migrants certainty because the reality is that New Zealand has economy-wide skills shortages. We need builders, engineers, doctors, nurses, chefs, mechanics, and many more who want to set up home in New Zealand.

The longer it takes for residency applications to be processed, the more attractive other countries will become as alternative places to establish new lives. Canada is currently welcoming migrants with open arms.

The Government’s sending the signal that it doesn’t value migrant workers who’ve been prepared to move their lives across the world for a better future.

We need to send the signal that New Zealand plans to return to the pre-Covid immigration system as soon as public health concerns allow, otherwise it will take years to re-establish our reputation amongst migrant communities.

We need to speed up residency for highly skilled persons by unfreezing the Expressions of Interest queue immediately and resuming applications for those overseas.

Not just because we need this for our economic recovery from Covid but because, as a country, we should be kinder and fairer to people giving up everything to be here.

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