Work is arguably the single most important element in the integration of immigrants to New Zealand. Despite this, many migrants find it hard to access decent employment, even with years of experience and qualifications attained elsewhere. A particular problem for some migrant workers is the recognition of qualifications by gate-keeping bodies, especially in some professions. The negative plight of migrants and their employment situation has been covered extensively in the mainstream media including stories of discrimination, exploitation and battles over work and entry visas.
In 2010, the Department of Labour released its research on the economic impact of immigration in the five years from 2005 to 2010. Findings show migrants initially tend to have lower employment rates and incomes than New Zealanders with similar characteristics. The report concludes that overall immigration has made a positive contribution to New Zealand’s economic outcomes.
In 2009, the Department of Labour released its Employers of Migrants survey. Overall, 87% of respondents rated their migrant employees as good or very good. Employers said the positive attitude displayed by migrants and their skills and experience were driving factors behind the high ratings. The Minister of Immigration at the time stated, “Migrant workers play a major role in the economy and this survey reinforces the value they provide to employers.” 81
The Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) policy was introduced in 2007 to meet labour shortfalls in the fruit picking sectors, generate income for Pacific Island countries, and discourage overstaying. The policy allows employers in the horticulture and viticulture industries to recruit temporary workers from Pacific Island countries.
In 2010 the Department of Labour commissioned an evaluation report of the RSE scheme.82 It identified the following positive impacts from the scheme for employers:
• Employers in the horticulture and viticulture industries have access to a reliable and stable seasonal workforce;
• Labour supply crises pre-RSE have been avoided and employers can now plan and manage their business with confidence;
• Significant productivity gains for employers began to emerge in the second season.
The following positive impacts for RSE workers were identified in the RSE evaluation report:
• Workers were able to develop skills;
• Workers were generally satisfied with the amount they earned over 4-7 months, as this was more than they could earn in their home countries;
• Workers from Vanuatu, Tonga and Samoa benefitted financially from working in New Zealand;
• Workers’ earnings enhanced the wellbeing of their families and enabled individuals and communities to pursue business ventures;
• Many workers engaged with the local community through church, sports, and cultural activities while in New Zealand.
Although steps have been taken to address some early issues with the scheme, key issues previously identified are raised again in the RSE evaluation report. These include: accommodation, particularly costs and overcrowding; lack of awareness and understanding of rights and obligations, fears of adverse consequences of complaining; and unfavourable reactions from the host community.
In 2010 the Commission met with the Department of Labour to discuss issues raised by the RSE scheme and the Commission’s own complaints and enquiries data, community intelligence and findings from the National Conversation about Work.
Complaints to the Human Rights Commission since 2005 suggest that some seasonal workers continue to face discrimination, difficult work conditions (which sometimes fall below minimum standards), and difficulty accessing social services. Temporary workers are also often unable to bring their families to New Zealand.
Violation of workers’ rights and discriminatory practices if unchecked could impact negatively on local industries and on New Zealand’s international reputation. One risk of failing to address these issues is that workers will not want to come or return to New Zealand (or in specific regions or industries) and advise their compatriots not to do so either. A local survey of workers from Vanuatu in the Bay of Plenty, for example, indicates that 65% of the workers found their experience worse than they had expected, 48% indicated that they would not return and 30% indicated that they would not recommend other ni-Vanuatu workers to join RSE.83 Competition with Australia is another supply-side issue.
There are a number of initiatives by employer and professional groups and education providers to assist migrants to overcome barriers to employment. For example, Opportunities for Migrant Employment in Greater Auckland (OMEGA) matches migrants with professionals who share the same skills and industry knowledge, in occupation-specific mentoring. The Auckland Chamber of Commerce operates the New Kiwis website for onshore migrant job seekers and a recruitment-focused website for prospective migrants offshore. The Canterbury Chamber of Commerce’s Employment Programme assists work-ready migrants to find employment and help relieve the skill shortage in the Canterbury region.
Migrant-specific courses and bridging programmes, such as the Workplace Communication for Skilled Migrants programme run by Victoria University of Wellington, aim to develop appropriate communication skills and improve cultural understanding of New Zealand workplaces among skilled migrants.
Local councils administer a number of programmes for migrants. For example, the Migrant and Refugee Work Experience Programme helps migrants and refugees gain useful local work experience in roles with Wellington City Council.
Recent immigration policy changes have placed greater emphasis on successful settlement of migrants. These changes include the establishment of migrant resource centres, and coordinated planning at the regional level between government departments, local councils, employer and migrant and community groups.
The Commission has promoted migrant rights through popular and useful publications such as the Commission’s widely circulated “A-Z pre-employment guidelines” for employees and employers which has been helpful for migrant employment, establishing what is permissible under the Human Rights Act.
Brain Gain – Migrant workers in New Zealand84 promotes positive stories about migrant employment and aims to persuade other New Zealand employers of the benefits of migrant employees.