Address to 11th Annual Immigration Law Conference

michael woodhouseIt’s an honour for me to be invited here today to open your 11th annual conference. I’m sure you will have some fruitful and robust discussions over the next couple of days.

Having been Minister of Immigration for just over six months now I’ve been doing plenty of reflection on immigration policy and process and I want to talk to you today about my priorities as Minister of Immigration and the practical measures the Government is taking to deal with some of the key issues we are facing.

When it comes to immigration policy the simple fact is this: We are competing in a global market; for talent, investment, tourists, students and temporary labour to augment our workforce and rebuild Canterbury and we have to have an edge that encourages people to choose to come to New Zealand ahead of other nations competing in that market.

So it will come as no surprise to you that my number one priority is ensuring that New Zealand has the right policies in place to attract the right visitors, students, workers and residents to come here.

But we have to do more to ensure that migrants who do come here are treated properly. The fundamental and overriding principle is that migrant workers have the same employment rights and obligations as New Zealanders. You should be well aware of the extensive media coverage around the exploitation of migrant workers, which has brought the issue very much to the front of people’s minds.

I am placing a very high priority on measures to combat migrant exploitation, and the Government recognises that more needs to be done to stamp out this abhorrent practice. It has already acted decisively. I’m sure that the changes we made in June to encourage victims of exploitation to come forward, together with proposed changes to legislation, will pay dividends

I know that staff from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment will be talking to you in more detail about some the work underway to address migrant exploitation during your conference.

The Ministry is also very focused on tackling migrant exploitation with the tools we already have. I have been pleased with the success of the joint operations carried out by Immigration New Zealand and the Labour Inspectorate with other agencies around the country.

A couple of recent examples spring to mind – the investigation of an Indian restaurant chain in Auckland over allegations of worker exploitation and wages as low as $4 an hour and four vineyard employers being taken to the Employment Relations Authority after investigators found breaches of employment and immigration law.

It’s essential that when migrant workers arrive here they know exactly what they’re letting themselves in for and are fully aware of their rights and what to do if they have any complaints. I want to commend Immigration New Zealand for the work they have been doing in this area.

The practical guides they have already produced for migrants working in the dairy and construction industries contain a wealth of information and tips and are an invaluable resource. I look forward to similar guides being produced for other industries that rely heavily on migrant labour. After all, we want migrant workers to get the best possible experience while they are working here so they can encourage others to follow suit and savour life in New Zealand.

There is little doubt that in order to achieve the Government’s Business Growth Agenda we will need workers from overseas to fill gaps in our labour market, but successive Governments have had ‘Kiwis first’ migration policies and my Government is no different.  Indeed I plan to strengthen the application of that principle.  Jobs for New Zealanders will always come first and the current debate about the level of migrant labour in our workforce has raised a number of issues for me.

I am acutely aware that a few employers have been unhappy with the quality of some of the New Zealanders they have been offered by Work and Income. I appreciate that employers might not always get exactly what they want, and acknowledge that for some young New Zealanders there are barriers to employment.  Four barriers spring to mind: education and skills, mobility, attitude and recreational drug and alcohol use.

But they are barriers to overcome, not immoveable impediments.  In the short term migrant labour will ease this problem, but I get the feeling that some employers and some industries have become overly reliant on this as a long-term salve.

In the future I expect industries that are successful in having an occupation added to a Skills in Demand list, or an employer granted an Approval in Principal to employ temporary migrant labour will, as a condition of the continuation of that status, be more energetic in working with Government to find a long term solution, and more diligent in demonstrating to me that they are doing all they can to ease their labour shortages domestically.

I won’t constrain a firm’s ability to grow, but I will be encouraging them to invest in New Zealanders by up skilling and training them so they have an opportunity to maximise their potential.

This has been one of the lessons from the Canterbury rebuild. The whole point behind the establishment of the Canterbury Skills and Employment Hub is to help ensure New Zealanders are first in line for job vacancies created during the rebuild.

The fact that visa applications to fill most jobs in Canterbury won’t be processed until a check has been done to ensure there are no suitable New Zealanders for the vacancy provides more certainty for employers and migrants as they will know sooner if a work visa application is likely to succeed.

Another area which has been the subject of considerable political and media discussion has been the thorny issue of asylum seekers. There was some concern when the Immigration Amendment Bill passed into law in June, particularly around the detention provisions.

I want to make it clear that the legislation does not introduce arbitrary or indefinite detention and does not breach our international obligations to asylum seekers. What it does do is ensure we have measures in place to effectively manage a mass arrival and send a clear message to potential people smuggling ventures that New Zealand is not a soft touch.

Whereas the Opposition continue to reject the possibility, there’s no doubt in my mind that New Zealand is a growing target for boats from Asia, and the Australian Government’s recent announcement that all asylum seekers will be processed in Papua New Guinea only makes that threat more real.

While we are taking firm and decisive action to deal with a mass arrival, this Government is strongly committed to helping and supporting genuine refugees.

The Budget 2013 announcement to rebuild the Mangere Refugee Resettlement Centre following a $5.5 million Government commitment of operating expenditure over the next four years is a perfect example of our commitment. Mangere has played a crucial role in helping refugees adapt to their new life in New Zealand, but many of the ageing buildings are beyond repair and need to be replaced.

The new facility will be built in stages to enable business as usual operations to continue during the construction period, but I’m sure everyone will be very pleased with the final result. Rebuilding Mangere is a central part of the whole-of-government Refugee Resettlement Strategy launched last December.

The Strategy has very challenging goals including increasing the number of refugees in paid employment and increasing their educational achievement. But it has one clear over-riding target – delivering better outcomes for refugees settling in New Zealand.

We have an enviable reputation internationally for our work in resettling refugees from the world’s trouble spots and the Strategy is all about ensuring that they are given the tools to make the best possible contribution to their new life.

I want to take a few moments to reflect on Immigration New Zealand’s performance as I know many of you have frequent interactions with the organisation. I want to acknowledge that there have been a number of improvements since the low point of a few years ago.

The latest customer satisfaction survey found that 87 per cent of applicants were very satisfied or satisfied with the overall quality of service they received from INZ. This result was significantly higher than the 70 per cent in 2009. The survey also found significant improvements in processing times for temporary applications with more than 90 per cent of temporary visa applications being decided within 30 days. The quality of decision-making has also gone up from 71 per cent in 2009 to over 90 per cent now.

I have no doubt that things are moving in the right direction but there’s no room for complacency and I’m expecting further improvements with the move to online transactions.  Students will become the first to apply for visas online, but virtually all visa applicants will have a transformed experience when the system is fully up and running by 2015.

Enabling customers to have their own individual online immigration accounts and tracking the progress on their applications will result in an even better customer service than now. The Government invested in what’s become known as Immigration Online because we see it as a way to deliver more timely, responsive and secure immigration services.

Immigration Online has a central role to play in achieving INZ’s vision of being recognised as a high quality service provider working with trusted partners to deliver outstanding immigration services and bringing in the best people New Zealand needs to prosper, but it’s only part of the story.

The new Global Service Delivery Model now being implemented will enable INZ to fully realise and maximise the benefits of the Government’s investment in Immigration Online. I am convinced that the changes will speed up visa processing and improve the consistency of decisions.

Visa application centres – or VACs – are a key part of this new delivery model and have led to quicker processing times as a result of INZ officers spending more time on processing applications rather than having to take up valuable time checking they have all the necessary associated forms.

VACs are already in many places around the world – often in partnership with other countries – and provide a win-win solution for the customer and the business.

I hope you’ve had an opportunity to get a flavour of some of the vital work we are doing to ensure we have not only the right policies but the right processes and systems in place to encourage people to choose New Zealand as their number one destination whether it’s to work, travel, study or live.

I’m happy to take any questions you may have.

 

ENDS

 

Media Contact: Yvette McKinley 021 396 998

Hon Michael Woodhouse
Minister of Immigration

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