Woodhouse unveils 'Kiwis first' immigration policy with new work visa rules

New Zealand plans to categorise high- and low-skilled temporary work visas depending on how much a person earns.

The government is committed to a "Kiwis first" immigration policy, making it harder for firms to hire overseas with new restrictions on temporary work visas for anyone earning less than the median wage, Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse says.

New Zealand plans to categorise high- and low-skilled temporary work visas depending on how much a person earns, introduce a three-year limit for how long low-skilled workers can stay and impose a one-year stand-down period, Woodhouse announced at a speech in Queenstown. The crackdown on temporary work visas comes six months after the government raised the bar on the skilled migrant visa and comes as rising immigration gets blamed for inflaming property markets.

"The government has a Kiwis first approach to immigration and these changes are designed to strike the right balance between reinforcing the temporary nature of essential skills work visas and encouraging employers to take on more Kiwis and invest in the training to upskill them," Woodhouse said in a statement. "We have always said that we constantly review our immigration policies to ensure they are fit for purpose and today's announcement is another example of this government's responsible, pragmatic approach to managing immigration."

The announcement follows the footsteps of tighter work visa policies unveiled in the US and Australia. US President Donald Trump is reviewing a temporary visa programme to place high-skilled workers, while Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull removed pathways to permanent residency for low-skilled workers.

Some 31,766 people arrived in New Zealand on the essential skills visa in 2015/16, up 11 percent from a year earlier, while 31,519 were skilled migrants in the same year, the most since the 2008/09 year.

New Zealand has been experiencing record levels of net migration in recent years as economic growth outpaced Australia's, meaning fewer locals moved across the Tasman. That's kept a lid on wage growth as the number of new jobs was largely filled by an expanding population, although firms have been complaining about the growing difficulty of attracting new labour. The New Zealand Institute of Economic Research's quarterly survey of business opinion showed a net 41 percent found it hard to find skilled workers and a net 24 percent struggled with unskilled staff.

Business New Zealand chief executive Kirk Hope said the changes should limit the ability of migrants to undercut local wages, and that it was appropriate to adjust the policy settings.

"Employers have faced real difficulties in getting higher skilled workers and today's changes will help get more focus on actively-sought skills," Hope said in a statement. "At the same time, proposed stand-down rules for lower-skilled migrants will reduce the potential for residence applications to be dominated by lower-skilled workers."

Woodhouse's changes would also drop the eligibility for families of lower-skilled essential skills visa holders, requiring partners and children to travel on their own separate visas.

The remuneration bands - $48,859 for low-skilled and $73,299 for high-skilled - to categorise the temporary work visa aimed to attract higher-skilled workers, who could then be allowed to claim points when applying for permanent residency, Woodhouse said.

The government is seeking submissions on the proposals, with a view to implementing them in August, a Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment discussion document said. Business NZ said it would participate in the consultation, which closes on May 21.

The proposals would also line up temporary work visas in seasonal jobs to the season rather than for 12 months as is currently the case.

Woodhouse also announced a pathway for some 4,000 South Island-based lower-skilled temporary migrants to become permanent residents, requiring them to stay for two more years in the same industry and region.

(BusinessDesk)

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