Urgent rethink on migration policies needed

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Aotearoa New Zealand needs to urgently rethink its migration policies to give immigrants, employers and industry sectors clarity as Covid-19 continues to affect international mobility and migration.

Migration and demography expert, Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley, says it is naive to expect migration will resume at pre-Covid-19 levels. Instead, as New Zealand starts to think about opening up, it needs to consider the long-term questions of what sort of migrants we need and which sectors and employers get priority.

He says it’s an opportune time for the New Zealand Government to consider the whole immigration system including its policy settings, the numbers of migrants, the mix of temporary and permanent, skilled and lesser skilled migrants, and regional, sector and employer interests.

Professor Spoonley is an Associate of Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures, a think tank and research centre at the University of Auckland. In an interview about his essay Covid-19, (im)mobility and migration published by Koi Tū, the former Pro Vice-Chancellor for Massey University says there are three issues – international mobility, migration targets and regional migration.

Firstly, he says international mobility is broken, and local and international systems need to be built to address the public health risks of travel and the viral spread that is associated with Covid-19, especially new variants.

“The lack of a plan in terms of mobility, including labour mobility, both locally and internationally, remains something of an ongoing challenge,” he says.

Secondly, he says when our migration it resumes, it will not be at the level it once was. He describes the years from 2017–2020 as “an extremely unusual period in New Zealand’s demography”, with the population growing at 2.1–2.2 percent, compared to the OECD average of 0.4 percent. The result – two thirds of our population growth came from net migration, which boosted the labour market but likely had adverse effects on productivity and put pressure on infrastructure and services.

“When we went into our first lockdown in 2020, we had our highest net migration gain of more than 79,000 people. We also had 300,000 people in the country on temporary study and work visas, reflecting how our labour market had become very reliant on migrants. Many have left. Consequently, many businesses and industry are now claiming that their organisation or sector will fail as they can’t access migrant labour. It’s a huge issue for New Zealand,” he says.

Instead, he suggests one per cent population growth – about 50,000 migrants a year – would be a “number we can cope with as a country” as an annual net migration target. But that does not include the temporary migrant (on study and work visas) and what that should look like.

He says New Zealand could benefit from moving from a national approach to a regional migration system that could help reverse population decline in certain regions. Canada has the Provincial Nominee Programme and Australia has its Welcoming Cities/Welcoming Regions initiative which invites regions to play a key role in immigrant attraction and approval – and settlement.

“We need to get regions more engaged in attracting migrants, rather than migrants just moving to Auckland. Migration could play a role in revitalising the regions as seen by the approach taken by Ashburton which, since 2000, has successfully attracted migrant families to work in the local economy.”

He says many communities say they want migrants but do nothing to support migration or migrants. One controversial idea is getting employers to take action.

“If migrant labour so important to an employer, perhaps they should meet more of the costs of the migrant coming here. In the same way that we tax developers to pay for community infrastructure and roads, should we be taxing employers to help pay with the additional costs and demand on society that migrants bring with them?”

Professor Spoonley says alongside the future of immigration, it pays to remember that the nature of employment and New Zealand’s demography will continue to change significantly.

“It is also time for employers to reconsider broader issues of training and upskilling, recruitment and retention as labour scarcity becomes an even greater issue as demography reduces domestic labour supply. High income countries were already experiencing a labour crunch long before Covid-19 made it worse”

The full essay is available online here.

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