2013 NZAMI Annual Conference opening address

  • Michael Woodhouse

Good morning and thank you for asking me along to speak to your conference today.

I want to start by acknowledging Peter Townsend, MC for the Conference, and Walter Stone, Chairman of your Association. It’s very important for me to come here to address you as members of New Zealand’s largest immigration adviser association. Developing and maintaining a good relationship with key stakeholders such as the NZAMI is crucial in ensuring we work as collegially and constructively as possible towards our goal of bringing the best people to New Zealand.

Today I want to touch on a number of issues I’ve been working on since I became Minister of Immigration in January and to outline some of my priorities in this key portfolio.  

My first speech as Minister was to the NZAMI seminar in Christchurch in February where I focused on the Canterbury rebuild so it’s appropriate that I should give a progress report. As you are aware there has been increasing debate and media coverage in recent weeks about the part New Zealanders are playing in the rebuild.

I have always acknowledged that despite Government, business and training organisations’ efforts in gearing up the kiwi workforce, the sheer size of the rebuild means we will need workers from overseas to fill certain gaps. It is after all the biggest economic undertaking in New Zealand’s recent history. But as with every other immigration policy I want to make it clear that jobs for New Zealanders will always be the number one priority.

You may have seen the headlines about businesses using migrant workers because they are cheaper than local builders, claims that subcontracting to local building firms is too expensive and companies boosting their recruitment of skilled trade migrants because of a shortage of New Zealand workers. I have worked with my Immigration officials to establish the veracity of those claims and not found evidence that this is the case, even with the companies named.

I strongly believe that the establishment of the Canterbury Skills and Employment Hub earlier this year has helped ensure New Zealanders are first in line for job vacancies created during the rebuild. The fact that visa applications to fill most jobs in Canterbury will not be processed until a check has been done to ensure there are no suitable New Zealanders for the vacancy has provided more certainty for employers and migrants.

The success of this approach is shown by the latest figures showing that the Hub has more than 12-hundred registered employers, more than three and a half thousand registered job seekers and more than 450 active vacancies.

We know that the Hub will not be the answer for every employer, especially those in areas requiring specialist skills and expertise. This is where the Canterbury Skill Shortage List comes in as it highlights occupations in shortage that are needed during the rebuild, and facilitates the grant of work visas for those jobs.

This approach fits in with the focus this Government has on ensuring that employers are able to have the labour they need as quickly as possible. The list is being reviewed regularly to ensure that it is as up-to-date and accurate as possible and in fact the latest review is taking place right now.

I am confident that the policies and tools we have in place in Canterbury are giving New Zealanders every opportunity of getting work first while ensuring we can attract overseas workers in areas of need and that the processes in place are as smooth as possible.

I want to share with you my thoughts on the ‘Kiwis first’ policy in the context of migrant labour because there is debate about the number of overseas workers in our workforce and this raises a number of issues.

The broader context to that debate is simply this: the opposition often cries “Where are the jobs?” And they do so at a time when, for every Kiwi receiving an unemployment benefit there are between 3 and 4 foreign nationals working in New Zealand on various types of visas.  So what many of those who ask “where are the jobs?” are really saying is “where are the jobs that are in exactly the place I want, doing the type of work I want, paying what I think I should earn and tolerating all of my shortcomings”. 

And the employers who say that prospective kiwi employees are too hard to train, have bad attitudes and are generally unhappy with the quality of some of the New Zealanders they have been offered by Work and Income need to also reflect on their efforts. I appreciate that employers might not always get exactly what they want, and I acknowledge that for some young New Zealanders there are barriers to employment. 

Four barriers spring to mind: education and skills, mobility, attitude and recreational drug and alcohol use.  But they are barriers to overcome, not immoveable impediments.  In the short term migrant labour will ease this problem, but I get the feeling that some employers and some industries have become overly reliant on this as a long-term salve. 

In the future I expect industries that are successful in having an occupation added to a Skills in Demand list, or an employer granted an Approval in Principal to employ temporary migrant labour will, as a condition of the continuation of that status, be more energetic in working with Government to find a long term solution, and more diligent in demonstrating to me that they are doing all they can to ease their labour shortages domestically.

I won’t constrain a firm’s ability to grow in the short term, but I will be encouraging and expecting them to invest in New Zealanders by up skilling and training them so they have an opportunity to maximise their potential. 

It is critical to our international reputation that the overseas workers we do attract here are treated properly. The fundamental and overriding principle is that migrant workers have the same employment rights as New Zealanders.

Any exploitation of migrant workers is completely unacceptable. The Government has been clear from the outset that more needs to be done to stamp out this abhorrent practice. I’m optimistic that the changes we made in June to encourage victims of exploitation to come forward will pay dividends.

We’re also planning to introduce an amendment to the Immigration Act in the next few weeks to make it a specific offence to exploit migrants who hold temporary work visas. The proposed penalty will reflect the seriousness of the offence – a jail sentence of up to seven years, a fine not exceeding $100,000, or both. In some cases exploitative employers will be deported back to their country of origin.

The Government recognises that it is in everyone’s interests to take firm and decisive action to deal with this issue. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment holds the same view and I have been pleased with the success of the joint operations carried out by Immigration New Zealand and the Labour Inspectorate with other agencies around the country.

A couple of recent examples spring to mind – the investigation of an Indian restaurant chain in Auckland over allegations of worker exploitation and wages as low as $4 an hour and four vineyard employers being taken to the Employment Relations Authority after investigators found breaches of employment and immigration law.

It is vitally important that migrant workers are given all the tools they need when they come here to prepare for their time in new Zealand. They are a particularly vulnerable part of the workforce as they are less likely to be aware of their rights and entitlements than their New Zealand colleagues.

Immigration New Zealand has done some commendable work in this area. The practical guides already produced for migrants working in the dairy and construction industries contain a wealth of information and tips. I look forward to similar guides being produced for other industries that rely heavily on migrant labour.

I want to turn now to another area which has been the subject of considerable political and media discussion this year - the thorny issue of asylum seekers. I know there was some concern when the Immigration Amendment Bill passed into law in June, particularly around the detention provisions.

I want to reiterate that the legislation does not introduce arbitrary or indefinite detention and does not breach our international obligations to asylum seekers. Having the ability to detain people being smuggled into New Zealand is vital to give agencies time to establish and confirm identities, and assess whether an individual poses a risk to national security or public safety.

The legislation ensures we have measures in place to effectively manage a mass arrival and sends a clear message to potential people smuggling ventures that New Zealand is not a soft touch.

I know many commentators and our political opponents remain sceptical about the likelihood of a mass arrival but there’s no doubt in my mind that New Zealand is a growing target and I make no apology for passing legislation to manage such an event. The Australian Government’s recent announcement that all asylum seekers will be processed in Papua New Guinea may, if implemented, make that threat more real.

Our political opponents have accused us of using the mass arrivals legislation to reduce our commitment to providing support to refugees and asylum seekers. Nothing could be further from the truth. While we are taking firm and decisive action to deal with a mass arrival we are strongly committed to helping and supporting genuine refugees.

There’s no better illustration of this than the decision to rebuild the Māngere Refugee Resettlement Centre following a $5.5 million Government commitment of operating expenditure over the next four years. Many of the buildings at Māngere are beyond repair and need to be replaced so something had to be done.

The new facility will be a huge improvement and the provision to accommodate up to 300 individuals in the event of a mass arrival will further help us manage such an event. Our commitment to resettling refugees and ensuring the best possible outcomes for them is unwavering.

The whole-of-government Refugee Resettlement Strategy launched last December has this over-riding target at its core. The Strategy contains some very challenging goals such as increasing the number of refugees in paid employment and increasing their educational achievement.

We have an enviable reputation internationally for our work in resettling refugees from the world’s trouble spots and we want to do all we can to ensure that they are given the tools to make the best possible contribution to their new life here.

One of our other priorities is continuing to attract people with the commercial nous, experience and global networks to boost the economy. The success of the investor migration scheme is a perfect illustration of having the right policies in place. More than $1.6 billion of potential investment capital has been attracted since the scheme was launched in July 2009 and our policies are consistently attracting over 500 new migrants a year who are establishing new, or growing existing, businesses in New Zealand.

A flow on effect from attracting the right business migrants has been the creation of more jobs for New Zealanders and therefore playing a significant and crucial part in the Government’s Growth Agenda.

But we’re not resting on our laurels. You’ll be aware that the Ministry has been reviewing business and investor migration policies and I’m planning to take a paper to Cabinet soon. I want to ensure that these policies are making the best possible contribution to New Zealand and that the businesses being created by business migrants have good growth prospects, are innovative and enable New Zealand to tap into the skills and capital migrants bring.

I’m keen to ensure we have policies to revitalise the regions and increase investment in areas outside the big cities. I know officials have been consulting with your members and others and I’m looking forward to sharing details with you when the policies are finalised – likely to be before the end of this year.

It’s been pleasing for me to see the sustained improvement in the timeliness of processing, the quality of decision-making and customer service. I am confident that the move to online transactions enabled by the new ICT system Immigration Online will result in an even better service to the customer.

Immigration Online has a central role to play in achieving INZ’s vision of being recognised as a trusted partner, delivering outstanding immigration services and bringing in the best people New Zealand needs to prosper, but it’s only part of the story. INZ’s new Global Service Delivery Model will also help speed up visa processing and improve the consistency of decisions.  You have a part to play in ensuring those goals are met.

The concept of trusted partnership is a key element of Immigration New Zealand’s Vision 2015. NZAMI and its members are amongst our trusted partners. I know you work in the interests of your clients and also want to build successful businesses. 

I’m also confident you understand the Governments goals for growth and the part good immigration policy and processes will play in meeting that challenge, and will work towards building on that partnership.

I am confident we are heading in the right direction to having the edge for attracting the right talent to choose New Zealand as their preferred destination.

Thank you for the work you do and for inviting me to open your conference.