Wednesday 25 October 2017

Immigration changes

I had a chat on Morning Report today about Labour's coming changes to immigration.

On the plus side, Labour's proposed changes are not nearly as dramatic as those proposed by New Zealand First. Labour's proposals are detailed here. Mike Reddell's critique of my take is here.

Labour proposes a generalised tightening of eligibility for various visas that they expect would result in 20,000 to 30,000 fewer migrants per year. Treasury continues to forecast that net migration will drop substantially, and within the context of the drop that is likely to come Labour's changes are not huge. But they would increase the size of any drop that is to come.

Labour wants to reduce the number of foreign students coming to New Zealand for study, and particularly wants to focus on students coming to study at sub-University and sub-Polytechnic institutions.

One of the changes is likely also to hurt the universities though. Currently, students completing degrees at New Zealand universities earn points towards a later work visa application. That means that getting a degree here also provides an option to stay on a work visa - or at least a stronger option than you might have otherwise had.

It makes sense from an immigration perspective if you think that people who have spent a few years studying here will be better acclimated to the place and will be more likely to have successful outcomes as migrants. And it makes sense within the context of a university system that explicitly cross-subsidises course delivery to domestic students from fees paid by international students.

As Labour has also promised a shift to fee-free study for domestic students, this could matter more. Fee-free study will inevitably have government try to find new ways of containing the costs of tertiary study on the government, and being able to rely on fees paid by foreign students has been important for the tertiary sector. We started seeing this pretty strongly in the aftermath of zero-percent loans, and it will get stronger. Making New Zealand less attractive for international students may be poorly timed.

I expect that changes restricting students at sub-Bachelor's programmes from working while in study would fairly quickly have those programmes designing work-in-study options to accommodate. The usual drill from critics on this one is that people come here because they want to work in a fish and chip shop and are able to do it by taking a couple courses in a shonky programme. But it's also very plausible that getting work experience while in any programme of study is really important in any potential future attempt to get work here. New Zealand's a small place, and having a local willing to vouch for you seems far more important than it should be. So I'd expect that most of those programmes will find a way of partnering with local employers to provide work-in-study training options that tick the boxes.

More worrying is the loss of the one-year study-to-work visa option for sub-Bachelor's courses. Suppose you graduate with a polytech degree in a skill that's in short supply in New Zealand. You've been studying on a student visa that will be expiring. If you want to stay, you need to flip to a work visa. But you can't get a work visa without a job offer in hand, because of how the points system works. The points from the job offer get you the work visa. And nobody's going to give you a job offer without your visa in hand if they think things will get held up at Immigration while all the police background checks from your home country are underway. Having the one-year study-to-work visa means the potential employer knows that that you've plenty of time to sort out any visa issues. Doing away with it would make it harder for foreign grads to get into work here.

Moving away from the student visa categories, I like that Labour's suggesting regionalised visas as a way of letting regions have access to more migrants; I would have liked this as an "in addition to" existing central government quotas, but I suppose it might have let Labour cut less than it otherwise might have.

I worry that the KiwiBuild visa programme is not nearly large enough to accommodate the scale of construction that is needed to remedy Auckland's housing shortage, that Labour's requirement that employers make a "genuine effort to find New Zealand workers" will set the stage for sham hiring rounds where an employer has already identified someone who would be perfect for the role and happens to be a migrant, and that there is no focus on finding better ways to ensure that foreign qualifications in fields like teaching are adequately recognised here.

Finally, where Labour sees a stronger labour inspectorate as the solution to problems of employers exploiting migrant workers, a more robust solution might ensure that migrants' visas are not unduly tied to particular employers. If you know that being fired (or quitting) will mean that your visa won't be renewed because you might not get another job quickly enough to have points on your application for having a job in hand, then your employer will have far more power over you than that employer should. Finding better ways of using the applicant's employment history rather than current employment status would provide a structural solution where employers couldn't abuse migrants because they would know those workers could easily shift to a better employer.

On the whole, I was steeling myself against worse.

PS: I hope that the Greens will champion the trial of the sponsored refugee system that the National government started. Sponsorship is a great way to let Kiwis willing to help do so without having to lobby the government to increase the quota whenever there's an international emergency. Treat it as an and rather than an or for the existing commitment to increase the government's quota.

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