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February 2019

Opening the post-study work privileges to eliminate the need for foreign students to work for a named employer in a specified region will allow students, keen to advance their careers, the ease to readily change employment.  For motivated students seeking to gain work experience in their area of study, this is excellent. Some will go on to gain residence in New Zealand and hold responsible jobs adding to the human capital and enriching the cultural diversity of New Zealand.  Others will seek their future offshore with positive memories and ready-made business and friendship tires.

For many foreign students, this won’t be the reality, as a number have been taken in by dishonest agents or unscrupulous employers while others simply accept untenable work conditions out of sheer necessity. Huge family expectations, even higher loans and the life-changing prize of residence are huge drivers and the elimination of employer-related long term work visas for foreign students further weakens the most vulnerable. The intention of the change is commendable however it gives away the opportunity a Government agency had to view the employment conditions of a number of guest workers further exposing these vulnerable workers.  Yes, Immigration New Zealand (INZ) is currently struggling to competently decided work visas in a timely manner but that is another matter.  Nevertheless, INZ is able with the expertise of their colleagues in the Labour Inspectorate support, in a very practical sense, employment legislation compliance.

Furthermore, I don’t support the theory that locking in a migrant worker to one company is enforcing bonded labour as it does not work that is performed involuntarily and under the menace of any penalty. Most employees in the New Zealand labour market have signed employment contracts which commit to a particular employer.  I appreciate the immediate comeback is that New Zealanders are able to exit that employment readily. They don’t have to give up their right to remain in New Zealand when they leave employment and that is an enormous disincentive for a migrant worker to terminate when their employment conditions are in violated.

The difficulty of terminating employment relates to the ease of being able to secure alternative employment and financial independence with some of our most vulnerable workers in the labour market being long term foreign students given their visa relies on the continuation of that employment.  Those who view time spent in an undesirable employment situation as part of the cost to obtain the bigger prize of living in New Zealand permanently are sadly also actively undermining the fair workplace practices that make New Zealand an attractive place to live.

The introduction of a bridging visa giving migrants time to secure alternative employment in exploitation situations would help to address the power balance and would be of greater assistance and hopefully uncover more readily unacceptable employment practices.

The education sector must take some responsibility in that many of these students have been encouraged to study courses in New Zealand that are incompatible with their educational background, previous qualifications, career aspirations or general suitability for the course or industry.  Decided, in the hope for the cheapest and quickest option to gain residence with little consideration to the practicalities of securing meaningful employment post qualification.

Post-secondary education for long term foreign students should focus on improving capability and capacity for paid employment or as preparation for the self-employed.  A match to employers needs and ultimately the labour market is necessary.  Non-alignment of vocational education and the labour market is not restricted to foreign students and is more complex today than ever given the speed of technology and the rapidly changing labour market.

The introduction of open work visas to students who complete qualifications in New Zealand has the additional consequence of increasing the labour pool for the horticulture and hospitality in particular.  It won’t greatly reduce migrant exploitation, it will, however, increase the number of temporary workers in New Zealand in lower skilled occupations with limited opportunity to ever gain residence. Holding out for a policy change or seeking a compliant New Zealand partner, all while competing with New Zealanders in certain sectors and regions, disrupts social cohesion.

Eliminating exploitation is inspirational however the tool of long term work visa without restriction to employer, occupation or location is not.  We can do better.

 

Mary Noonan

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