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New Zealand restricts skilled-worker visas in 'Kiwis-first approach to immigration'

The Guardian logo The Guardian 19/04/2017 Eleanor Ainge Roy in Dunedin

Auckland Airport © Brendon O'Hagan/Bloomberg Auckland Airport The New Zealand government has announced plans to tighten access to skilled work visas to help get Kiwis into jobs ahead of migrants.

Employees in seasonal work such as fruit picking would also have their visas shortened to the length of time they were needed in the country.

The new measures are aimed at controlling record-high levels of migration to New Zealand, amid growing concern about housing shortages, road congestion and overcrowding in Auckland, and other major New Zealand cities.

Last year more than 70,000 people migrated to New Zealand, according to Statistics New Zealand, the majority of them choosing to settle in Auckland, now home to nearly 1.5 million people.

The changes come a day after Australia announced it would give priority to Australian workers by replacing the skilled 457 visa. Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, said on Tuesday: “Australians must have priority for Australian jobs – so we’re abolishing the [class] 457 visas, the visas that bring temporary foreign workers into our country.”

New Zealand’s immigration minister Michael Woodhouse used similar language in announcing the tougher criteria on Wednesday, saying: “The government has a Kiwis-first approach to immigration.”

“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,” he said.“That is why we are making a number of changes to our permanent and temporary immigration settings aimed at managing the number, and improving the quality, of migrants coming to New Zealand.”

The changes include raising the income threshold to be classed as a skilled migrant to nearly NZ$50,000 (£27,500) a year, classifying anyone earning NZ$73,000 and above as high-skilled and restricting work visas to low-skilled workers to three years, after which a mandatory stand-down period will be enforced before workers can re-apply.

The largest number of migrants to New Zealand come from Britain, China, India, the Philippines and South Africa.

The leader of the opposition, Labour leader Andrew Little, said the changes amounted to little more than “tinkering” by the government.

“New Zealand is richer for immigration, but our public services, housing, and infrastructure can’t keep up with the current record level of immigration,” said Little in a statement.

“We need to take a breather and catch up. We need to fix the immigration system to reduce the number of low-skill migrants coming into the country, while still bringing in the skilled workers we need.

“[The National party’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.”

New Zealand’s general election is scheduled for September, with immigration and housing affordability set to be top of the agenda.

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