In conversation with Immigration Minister, Michael Woodhouse

(from The Migrant Times; the original story is here

(caption for the above picture: Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse tackling questions at a public meeting in Christchurch)

Can you give an overview of the immigration policy of New Zealand? Especially in the context of Brexit and Donald Trump's win. New Zealand has also tied up some immigration provisions. Are we going on the same path?

Woodhouse: The two main principles are that our immigration policy needs to be skills based and demand driven. So that means we don’t have a fixed number of people who could come every year. We have planning ranges. But largely that is influenced by things like the skills in short supply, the labour in short supply, the number of New Zealanders that form partnerships with non New Zealanders. We travel a lot. Often we bring home spouses or partners. And of course we have our obligation under our humanitarian commitments both to the pacific and to the refugees. So I think the three main areas are: demand driven, skill based and humanitarian.

So we’re not going the way that England went or US went?

Woodhouse: No not at all. We watch those developments with a great deal of interest obviously and you may have heard that the United States has seen a big spike on the number of people registering interest on our website. But look they would need to fit in with the policies that we have and have the skills that we need or the labour that’s in short supply.

One of the main problems migrants face after coming to New Zealand is getting a job. What is Immigration NZ doing to help migrants gain employment?

Woodhouse: In today's meeting I talked about the refugee resettlement strategy. But there’s also another strategy to enable even our skilled migrants to settle well and to be well connected with thecommunity. Bear in mind that it’s not often the primary applicant that has the biggest problem but their spouse or children. So making sure that they do understand what’s available for them, that they learn English and have opportunities as adults to learn English, also to develop their own skills, and connect with the community more broadly.

But many migrants when applying for jobs, face unconscious bias from potential employers. You already have tips for employers such as 'Why Diversity works'. But do we need any policy measures now? To tackle that unconscious bias, I mean.

Woodhouse: That’s a broader issue for the government.

That’s probably better led by the Minister for Ethnic Communities as well as the Minister for Women, and me as Minister of Immigration.

There are number of ways to tackle that. There’s no one particular thing.

Our settlement strategy is certainly designed to make sure that employers understand what they should be looking for. If they’re employing migrants for example there’s plenty of guidance into some of the cultural differences. But also I think what will happen is, people’s bias drops the more they understand and the more connection they have with the diverse range of people.

What I know is that a diverse workforce, whether it be gender or orientation or ethnicity, is a much more effective workforce. And so we need to tackle that one person one organisation at a time. And I think the fact that we are so much more culturally diverse now, will accelerate our path to that.

I’ll also add that while we see forms of unconscious bias or casual racism, however its described, when we compare ourselves with other countries, we’re actually much more tolerant. We’re not going to have that sort of Trump type of rhetoric or that post Brexit fear.

And I’m quite pleased for all, that while there are always some challenges, New Zealanders can actually hold their hands up and say we’re a welcoming community.

Let's come to the issue of deportation of Indian students now. While nothing is happening to the immigration advisers who brought them here, or to the private tertiary institutes which gave them admission, only the victims – in this case the students - are being taken to task. Why is that?

Woodhouse: I don’t agree with that last point. Let me start by saying that there are two issues that you’ve raised. Migrant exploitation in any form in any place is unacceptable. In this country we have a rule of law that can be trusted and authorities that can be trusted if victims of migrant exploitation speak up.

My biggest challenge is encouraging the leaders in each cultural community to share that with their communities. It's a very very important message.

In respect of the Indian students, I think there’s a different thing going on. Don’t get me wrong. There is elements of victimisation particularly with students who may have borrowed heavily in order to fund their studies and then who are being expected to work below the minimum employment standards we have in this country.

Yes, people are working at 2/3 dollars per hour.

Woodhouse: That’s right and the culprits should be punished. I have made it very clear to my immigration officials that wherever it occurs, our target should be the employer [the perpetrator], not the employee [the victim].

That said, an employee who speaks up will not be worse off for doing so but actually they’re probably not going to be better off either. So if they came under false pretences, then that’s something that needs to be looked at.

Now I’m very happy for Immigration and education authorities to reset the clock. If they have failed to meet say the minimum standards of English, then they can resit and go through training. If they have, and indeed with the latest examples, that’s exactly what’s happening.

But these students have to take responsibility for the information that’s provided on their applications. So when they claim to have the level of English they don’t have, when they claim to have the financial means to support themselves that they don't have, they know that. Yes they are being sold a story about a pathway to residence that doesn’t exist, but that’s not a story the New Zealand government has perpetuated.

Yes, in some cases, students are at fault as well. But why are tertiary education providers, which are responsible for bringing such students not being taken to task as well?

Woodhouse: We are serious about it. That's why the Minister for Tertiary education Steven Joyce announced changes to the Code of Practice for the Pastoral Care of International Students mid this year. One of the biggest change that brought about is now tertiary education providers are responsible for the education agent’s behaviour.  

Now if those organisations continue to have students that come through unscrupulous education agents, are failing to meet the standards for their visa, then the education provider will be at serious risk of losing their ability to provide education.

You said migrants need to come out against exploitation. But the problem is their visas are tied to employers. If they come out against their employers, they risk deportation. Does Immigration NZ understand this problem?

Woodhouse: That’s not true for students.

Yes, not for students. But migrants in general.

Woodhouse: Let’s just concentrate on the students first because they are a big problem and they are certainly in the news.

A student with work rights generally has the ability to work 20 hours per week during term time and full time during semester breaks. They are not tied to any individual employer. When they graduate, if they qualify for a graduate search visa, a post study work visa, that’s also not tied to a particular employer.

However, if one is on an essential skills visa that is tied to an employer. That is because the employer has made claims about their ability to fulfil some particular need.

In these cases, if the visa holder is being exploited and they made complaints, it is possible for them to gain a variation of conditions that enables them to stay in order that they may search for another appropriate job. But bear in mind that they came here on the basis of a shortage in one particular area with one employer, so they can’t be guaranteed to get work.

But this comes with two qualifications: one is, I can’t make a blanket statement for all cases, and secondly, while Immigration should be rightly focussing on the employer as the perpetrator, if there is any particular contribution to that situation by the employee, we will have to investigate that as well.

But as I say, I am very firmly focussed on the exploiter practice not the victim.

There were some reports suggesting that the Prime Minister defended migration saying that we need migrants to work because young New Zealanders are either lazy or on drugs. Can you please clarify, what does the Government believe about young New Zealanders?

Woodhouse: We need to access the international labour market because we are a very strongly growing economy; creating jobs in record numbers that currently we’re not able to fill with the New Zealand workforce.

It is also true that for some job seekers there are barriers to their employment. But we’ve got to remove those barriers, but we’re not going to give up on those young New Zealanders.

Whether those barriers are ones of geography, of attitude, of skill, of recreational drugs, they’re all the things that employers are telling us; of the difficulties they have of placing those young New Zealanders in work.

We won’t give up on them. We don't believe they’re beyond help.

We expect employers to work really hard to recruit and retain them into those jobs. But as I say there are more jobs than work-ready people at the moment.

We had a chat with Associate Minister for Immigration Craig Foss few weeks back. He told us that your department will be announcing South Island immigration policy details soon. Can you give us a time-line for this?

Woodhouse: So there are two points you’ve raised. We have changed the points for regional jobs. So under the skilled migrant policy there are already changes to encourage people to come to the regions.

It was never designed to create a big shift away from Auckland but it has small and observable differences in the number of people going to the regions.

And we also do that for things like the entrepreneur category visa if you’re setting up a business out of Auckland you will get more points.

The PM and I did announce a pathway to residency for long term temporary visa holders in the South Island and we still intend to finalise those policy details and make that announcement in the not so distant future.

It has taken a little longer than I had hoped, for a number of reasons but its definitely not forgotten and I am looking forward to be able to make that announcement.


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