Opinion: The real story on immigrant work visas

I wasn’t going to write about immigration today at all but a radio station rang up last night and invited me to go on its show this morning to discuss an article in today’s Herald that runs under the headline Top source countries for migrant workers are not Asian.

Since I had to get up early anyway, and since the article gives me the chance to make two points, I thought I’d respond.

Perhaps my key point is that flawed articles like this really should reinforce the message to MBIE, that I made in a post the other day that, while MBIE’s annual immigration approvals data are good and useful, they are only available with a long lag, and the monthly data they provide is limited, little-known, difficult to use, and therefore largely overlooked. If people can’t readily use that – accurate, official, administrative – data they will use what they can easily get. In this case, that is the permanent and long-term migration data derived from arrival and departure cards, and reliant on the self-reported intentions of people when they cross the border. It is published monthly and hogs the headlines, but for actual analysis of immigration policy (which affects non-citizens) it just isn’t good at all.

The Herald builds an article around this opening

A rise in work visas has been the driving force behind record immigration numbers but the main source countries are not from Asia.

A Herald analysis into immigration data found work visa arrivals increased from 16,787 in 2004 to 41,576 last year.

The top five source countries for work visas last year are the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, South Africa and the United States of America.

They get those numbers not from data on the number of work visas issued, or outstanding, but on the basis of PLT arrivals data. When people arrive at the airport they complete an arrivals card, indicate whether (at that time) they intend/expect to stay 12 months or more, and the reason for their visit. The “reason for visit” isn’t tightly mapped to the various different visa classes, and all the non-New Zealand arrivals are grouped under four main headings (residence, student, visitor or work) and a small “other” category.

So these data are correctly reported by the Herald, but:

  • SNZ only publishes the data by previous country of residence, not country of citizenship (although they must have the latter data). The Herald should have been a little wary when it noticed Australia high up on the list, since Australian citizens don’t need work visas to live and work here. Published data don’t let us work out which country (citizenship) those people were actually from but, if someone worked in Australia for a couple of years and then came on to New Zealand, there is no meaningful sense in which they are “Australian.”

  • The PLT data only attempt to capture the visa people held at the point they crossed the border. Huge numbers of people change their visa while here – more than 70% of residence visas are granted to people who were already living here. Perhaps more importantly in this context, many people who come on student visas – probably almost all of those in the PLT(more than 12 months) category – now have work rights while they are here. And, when they complete their qualification, many can acquire a “study to work” work visa. So, if we are trying to understand which country the migrants (temporary or permanent) who are working here come from, the PLT numbers are barely any use at all.

In fact, MBIE knows exactly who has an outstanding work visa (which doesn’t include students working while on a student visa), and which country those people are citizens of. They now publish the data each year. Here are the top 10 countries as at 30 June last year.

Outstanding temporary work visas by country, as at June 30, 2016

The UK is still important but it is swamped by people from India, and China and the Philippines aren’t far behind the UK. We only have this particular data since 2009 but, back then, the UK was the largest source country for people with outstanding work visas. Since then, the UK numbers have only increased a little, while the Indian numbers have more than trebled. And all that is so even though these stock numbers include the numbers here on working holiday (work) visas, where European countries (Germany, UK, and France) dominate the annual approvals numbers.

What about approvals data? Here are the top 10 countries of people granted Essential Skills work visas in 2015/16.

Essential skills visas granted, by country, 2015/16

A decade ago, the UK was clearly the largest source country.

And here are the top 10 countries of people granted Family work visas (note, work visas – these aren’t the residence approvals).

Family work visas granted, by country, 2015/16

Again 10 years ago the UK was the largest single source country.

MBIE doesn’t provide this breakdown for those granted “study to work” visas, (even though the number of those visas granted has increased from around 6000 in 2005/06 to around 22000 last year).

Student visas granted, by country, 2015/16

And, since student visa numbers are totally dominated by people from Asian countries, we might reasonably assume almost all of the study to work visas have gone to citizens of Asian countries.

And finally, of course, there is the residence approvals programme. The overwhelming bulk of these approvals is granted to people already living in New Zealand, who arrived on one or other of the temporary visas programmes and eventually qualified for residence. Here are the top 10 countries, for 2015/16 and for 2005/06, 10 years earlier.

Residence approvals by source country

Total approvals didn’t change much over that decade but the composition (by source country) did.  One forgets, I suppose, but I was a little surprised to realise that even 10 years ago the UK was still far and away the largest single source country.

Which country our temporary or permanent migrants come from isn’t a big concern of mine, and has never been a focus of my analysis of the possible connection between immigration and economic performance. I don’t much care where migrants come from but about what skills and talents they bring. That said, I was interested in the new study by Harvard researchers that I linked to a few weeks ago, suggesting that if there were economic benefits from immigration (and that particular study reckoned there were) they were most evident when the migrants were from countries that are richer than the recipient country, or from countries with a degree of cultural similarity to the recipient country. Perhaps that result won’t stand up to close scrutiny over time but it does make quite a lot of intuitive sense. On that residence approvals list, only the UK and the US are richer than us.

And as a final note, I repeat my plea to MBIE to markedly improve the availability of such summary data on immigration approvals (and outstanding visas). They hold all the data, and there is no reason why these data could not be available, and easy to use, on a monthly or quarterly basis within a few days of the end of the relevant period. Debate about immigration policy is often difficult enough but it is made more so when the good timely data just aren’t made easily available, and people fall back on what they can find, inadequate for purpose as it often is.

Michael Reddell was at various times head of financial markets at the Reserve Bank and a New Zealand representative on the International Monetary Fund board. These days he blogs at www.croakingcassandra.com

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