The issues involved in the current debate over immigration policy are so important for the country that understanding it properly requires an in-depth look that I am attempting here in four parts. I will repeat some of what I have written before but will also provide the most up to date data available.
Currently, New Zealand has at least 150,000 people working on temporary work visas or as students with the right to work up to 20 hours a week or full-time when on vacation. Most of them have hopes of being able to transition towards permanent residence, yet official figures confirm only one in six is able to do so. Government policies have deliberately led to the creation of a huge pool of desperately vulnerable workers to help big business exploit them more effectively.
Immigration policy under “free market” economies are designed to keep working people down – not out. While mainstream politicians routinely resort to subtle (and not so subtle) racist smears on migrants, government policies actually facilitate further migration. Capitalist “democracies” love to have large segments of the working class with no, or very few, rights – and that is true for New Zealand as well.
The US has at least 11 million so-called “illegals”. Some estimates put the number nearer 20 or 30 million. Maintaining their status as a pariah sector of the working class through periodic deportations is not designed to keep immigrants out of the United States. Rather, it is used to keep those millions free to be exploited to the fullest extent possible. When workers have the constant threat of deportation hanging over them, it is much more difficult for workers to organise against exploitation.
In New Zealand, it is difficult for people to simply cross our border so there is not the same large number of undocumented migrants. However, having a pool of workers in a precarious position in the workforce suits the needs of big business. Therefore, governments have implemented policies to achieve the same goals “legally”.They have done this by dramatically increasing the number of workers on temporary work visas while making it harder to transition to permanent residence.
While there are only around ten thousand so-called “overstayers” in New Zealand, that is people who have overstayed a visitor or work permit, there are at least 150 thousand people legally able to work in New Zealand on “temporary” work or student visas at any one time. The total work force of the country is 2.4 million people. Most of these workers are in precarious employment situations and are desperately hoping to transition to being a permanent resident. They are also usually legally not able to change their employer easily and are “free” to be abused and exploited as a consequence.
Parallel with the exploitation of workers on temporary visas, there has developed an industry to attract fee-paying students to do courses of little educational value just so the student can a get a leg on the ladder that for one in six of them may lead to permanent residence. There is evidence of corrupt behaviour at all stages of the process – from recruitment to training and qualifications gained.
New Zealand’s horror stories
There are shocking stories reported almost weekly in the media of workers being abused and exploited. We hear about workers being paid a few dollars an hour, workers paying the boss the equivalent of their own wage or the difference between the minimum wage and the manager’s salary they are meant to be getting. One recent case involved charges of “human trafficking and exploitation” for workers from Fiji.
Some workers simply “buy” the job and associated visa sponsorship. I have been told by one new graduate that the market rate to buy a chef’s job is now up to $80,000.
For those on student visas, it is often those from poorer backgrounds who get trapped into these situations. They work to alleviate the financial burden on their families created by the very high school fees and bribes needed for employment. Many migrant student-workers are deeply in debt and desperate to work for as many hours they can for whatever pay they can get.
One horror story that was reported involved virtual slavery for a migrant worker in a restaurant in Christchurch. The silver lining in this case is that the employer is being prosecuted by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and that compensation should be paid. But that is not guaranteed. Often in situations like this, the employer winds up their business, the worker gets nothing and they reopen the business with a “new” owner on the books.
This example may be extreme, but in November 2014, MBIE found sixteen Christchurch labour hire and construction companies to be in breach of employment laws through a series of proactive audits they carried out. Forty audits were carried out, 23 had been completed at the time of the news report and in 16 cases – that is 70% of the completed audits – the employers were found to be operating illegal exploitative practices. Many of these involved migrant labour brought in for the post-earthquake rebuild. This is the only time I know of where MBIE has done a pro-active audit of companies – that is they haven’t waited for a complaint before acting.
A joint operation between the Labour Inspectorate, Immigration New Zealand and Inland Revenue in Marlborough vineyards reported on August 19 that contractors were “committing serious breaches of employment standards”.
“With only one contractor found to be compliant, it shows the industry needs to start taking action to ensure the contractors they’re using are meeting employment standards,” says Labour Inspectorate Regional Manager Kevin Finnegan.
An in-depth study by Francis L. Collins of Auckland Univeristy found 20 percent of temporary migrants report being paid below the minimum wage.
The government is also fully aware of the widespread abuses. Patrick Gower of Newshub reported August 23 that “In January this year, Justin Alves – a risk manager for Immigration New Zealand – described ‘Indian families crippled with debt who can’t actually afford to study here’ as a ‘major problem’ for New Zealand.
“He quoted a complaint from a former student that said: ‘I struggled a lot in Auckland for food – even for job… I invested $18,000 in Auckland…If you don’t have jobs why you are encouraging students from India to come to New Zealand?’
“Mr Alves described the written complaint as ‘the reality for a significant number’ of students.”
International student industry
The current government significantly expanded the number of students and workers being given temporary work visas each year, to its current combined annual total of around 250,000.
A whole new sector of Private Training Establishments (PTE’s) has grown up to provide courses to the desperate students. At the same time, the government has put the squeeze on funding for public education. The state education system as a whole from high schools through to polytechs and universities has increasingly become dependent on fee-paying students to survive. Fourteen per cent of all tertiary enrollments are foreign, fee-paying students.
This was essentially admitted by Mark Flowers the chairperson of the Metro group of six big metropolitan institutes of technology, who told Radio NZ on June 10: “We have absorbed cost increases for some years now without really the ability to raise fees. It is getting tighter, there’s not as much headroom as there was. On the other hand, increasing international revenues has definitely assisted, and I think we’re putting in better systems.” Standard fees at Auckland University are between $27,000 and $50,000 a year for undergraduate courses. Paying for a full-fee course at a major university virtually guarantees a successful work to residence visa but at a cost of $50,000 a year on average including living costs.
These government policies have led to a situation where people from some of the poorest countries are subsidising the education system in one of the world’s richest. It is an entirely parasitical relationship.
The government hopes to increase the size of this industry from its current annual revenue of $3.1 billion to $5 billion by 2025. While this leads to further inequality between countries, these students are integrated into the workforce in a weaker position. They are then able to be used to drive up inequality within New Zealand by placing a downward pressure on wages.
To achieve its goal of doubling the private education industry, the government radically increased the range of students able to work while studying in 2013. Currently, there are about 127,000 student visa holders in the country, three-quarters of whom are full fee-paying. Most are able to work part time and many do so. Recruiters tell them that jobs are readily available, that they can get full-time work when they graduate, and ultimately permanent residence with ease. Many of them have taken out loans to fund their studies.
Overseas students can usually work up to 20 hours a week during term and full-time on holidays. Many work more hours out of necessity or because they have been forced to by the employer. This has to be “under the table” to avoid the eyes of Immigration NZ and the tax man. As a consequence, many students fail courses due to tiredness and must pay more fees to reenroll.
Students graduating from a course in New Zealand are eligible for a 12-month work visa. If they can find work that is relevant to the qualification, that visa can be made into a temporary work visa for two years. If they are lucky, this can be extended a further two years. Permanent residence is only possible for a “skilled” job offer, often with some managerial responsibility. Huge fees are charged by Immigration NZ at all stages of the process.
Many of the education providers that have been set up in New Zealand these last few years are taking advantage of these desperate “students” to make a profit. Even if the courses are NZQA approved and legitimate, they would not exist unless the students believed they had at least a chance of transitioning to permanent residence.
The reality is that despite the sacrifices often being made, and their desperate scramble for jobs, only one in six will achieve permanent residence. The 2014/2015 MBIE report noted that only 17% of students were able to transition to residency five years after their first student visa. Similarly, only 18% of temporary work visa holders had transitioned to residency by three years after their first work visa.
It is simply a cruel and heartless policy that sees overseas students and workers competing with each other in a desperate and ultimately futile dream for over 80 per cent of them to achieve New Zealand residency. Those who are here should have a realistic chance of gaining residency. It is inhumane to bring hundreds of thousands of young workers here only to tell 80% of them they have no hope and send them home again and then for them to be replaced by hundreds of thousands more.