There is no doubt 2020 is set to break many records around the world for a multitude of things. In New Zealand, one of the records is the number of amendments to Immigration Instructions, policy and law that have been pushed through since the start of 2020. Usually a very quiet, stable set of legislation and supporting policy, the immigration portfolio is setting an extremely hectic pace in terms of rate of change. Almost every week we are seeing changes announced, as Immigration New Zealand (INZ) try to react according to the demands set by the All of Government COVID-19 response team.
Our update sets out some of the major changes we have seen that are currently in force, and what might be in store for the future.
Background – border closures, changed labour market
As most of you will be aware, the New Zealand borders are closed to all but a very select few. New Zealand citizens and permanent residents, Australian citizens and resident visa holders who are usually resident in New Zealand, and those who are partners and dependent children of such groups of people are permitted entry through the closed borders.
It appears that the government wildly under-budgeted when it comes to the number of NZ citizens and residents returning home, many after multiple years away. This has compounded the extremely difficult task of trying to get a temporary resident or worker through the tight border restrictions, because there simply is no room in the mandatory quarantine facilities.
As a country with such low COVID-19 numbers, it is a very compelling argument for the government to keep the border restrictions in place.
The end of last week saw our quarterly labour market figures released, and, much to everyone’s surprise, the official unemployment rate has dropped to 4%, down from 4.2% in the first quarter of the year. There are plenty of warning signs, however, that the next quarterly figure won’t be quite so rosy, but we are seeing a strong push from INZ in the interim regarding employers testing the local labour market for not only the availability of someone in the local market to undertake the role, but also whether there are any persons who could be trained to do the role on offer. Anecdotally we are hearing of difficulties employers are facing in filling roles from hospitality (where job losses were numerous over the levels 4 and 3 lockdown periods) through to more traditionally highly skilled roles.
Suspension of applications from offshore
As of 10 August, the ability to make an application for a temporary class visa by an applicant who is physically outside of NZ has been suspended, for a period of three months. This change does not affect those with applications already submitted, however. Those who are still outside of NZ with a pending application will need to sit tight a little longer, as it does not appear that processing of these applications is imminent. They will be processed, but we are not sure when.
Automatic 6 month extension for all employer-assisted work visas until 31 December 2020
To provide some continuity in the current confusion, all employer-assisted work visas that were due to expire between now and 31 December 2020 have been automatically extended for a further six months. Note that this only applies to employer-assisted work visas, and so not working holiday visas, or those on partnership-based work visas where the partner is a NZ citizen or resident. Despite initially refusing to also extend the visas of accompanying family members, INZ have now agreed and partners and dependent children holding relevant work/student/visitor visas have also been extended to match the principal visa holder.
Transition to new employer-assisted regime
During 2019 the government announced a significant overhaul to the employer-assisted work visa program. The second stage (of three) of this implementation was forecast to come into effect in July 2020, and despite everything else going on, INZ did implement the second stage of changes. Essentially, Essential Skills work visas have now had the ANZSCO classification of the occupation on offer removed from the assessment for length of visa to be granted. Instead, the sole determinant of whether a person can be granted a higher-paid or lower-paid work visa and the length of that work visa, is based on whether the hourly rate on offer is at or above the median wage (currently NZD25.50 per hour) or below the median wage.
If the position on offer has an effective hourly rate of $25.50 or higher, then the visa applicant may be granted a work visa valid for up to three years. Lower than this median wage, and it is only a six month work visa until January 2022 (more below on this).
The final round of changes are due to be implemented in mid-2021, and will require every employer to become accredited. This will turn our main work visa system into something similar to Australia’s TSS regime, with an employer ‘sponsorship status’, a nomination application (where the position is looked at) and the visa application.
Lower-paid work visas – six month visas only per visa grant until January 2022
In light of the turmoil that COVID-19 has left in the local labour market, INZ have announced that work visas issued until early January 2022, where the hourly rate falls below the national median wage (currently $25.50), will only be issued for a total of 6 months at a time. This is ostensibly to look after the local labour market and ensure that visas are only issued where there are genuine shortages of skilled staff. The rules around a mandatory stand-down period of 12 months outside of NZ remains in force after a visa holder has held a low-skilled or lower-paid series of visas for 36 months.
Suspension of Skilled Migrant and Parent category pool draws remains in force
Both the draws from the pool of Skilled Migrant and Parent category Expressions of Interest remain suspended from March 2020. This initial suspension is due to end in September, and we are expecting advice from INZ on whether the suspension will remain in force beyond this time. Note that draws for Expressions of Interest for the Investor 2 category resumed in June, even for those based overseas currently.
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