New Zealand tightens immigration rules for skilled workers, treads in America’s footsteps

The New Zealand government announced today it will tighten access to its skilled work visas, just a day after the United States and neighbouring Australia announced similar restrictions on immigration.

New Zealand’s immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse said he was taking a “Kiwis-first approach to immigration”, but opposition leaders criticised the measures, saying they were an attempted sop that would not bring about any real change.

“It’s important that our immigration settings are attracting the right people, with the right skills, to help fill genuine skill shortages and contribute to our growing economy. Changes to permanent immigration settings include introducing two remuneration thresholds for applicants applying for residence under the Skilled Migrant Category (SMC), which will complement the current qualifications and occupation framework,” Woodhouse said in an official statement.

“One remuneration threshold will be set at the New Zealand median income of $48,859 a year for jobs that are currently considered skilled. The other threshold will be set at 1.5 times the New Zealand median income of $73,299 a year for jobs that are not currently considered skilled but are well paid,” Woodhouse added. “Collectively these changes will improve the skill composition of the SMC and ensure we are attracting migrants who bring the most economic benefits to New Zealand.”

The Government is also proposing changes to temporary migration settings to manage the number and settlement expectations of new migrants coming to New Zealand on Essential Skills work visas. The changes include:

  • The introduction of remuneration bands to determine the skill level of an Essential Skills visa holder, which would align with the remuneration thresholds being introduced for Skilled Migrant Category applicants.
  • The introduction of a maximum duration of three years for lower-skilled and lower-paid Essential Skills visa holders, after which a minimum stand down period will apply before they are eligible for another lower-skilled temporary work visa.
  • Aligning the ability of Essential Skills visa holders to bring their children and partners to New Zealand with the new skill levels.
  • Exploring which occupations have a seasonal nature and ensuring that the length of the visa aligns with peak labour demand.
New Zealand Parliament Building.
New Zealand Parliament Building. Photo courtesy: Wikimedia

Labour leader Andrew Little dismissed the changes as "tinkering" that would not make a meaningful difference to the number of low-skilled migrants entering the country.

"National's changes don't address the huge numbers of people coming here to do low level qualifications or low skill work, then using those visas as a stepping-stone to residency. National's announcement won't change the fact we are issuing over 6000 work visas for labourers a year when we have thousands of unemployed labourers in this country already," he said.

NZ First leader Winston Peters described the changes as a "con" and "a callous attempt to hold onto power" without addressing the real issue.

"They are fiddling with the issue while the plain fact is foreign workers will still be able to come here when employers claim they can't get Kiwis," he said.