News & Thinking

IMMIGRATION: COVID-19 migrant workers

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Anthony Harper

Migrant workers are very vulnerable right now. The economic landscape is also difficult for employers. Here are answers to some common questions we have received from migrants and their employers.


Can we reduce migrant workers’ hours to match with the government subsidy?

The wage subsidy scheme announced by the government is $585.80 per week. To comply with essential skill work visa requirements, migrants must be paid for at least 30 hours each week. This means that if a migrant is only paid the government subsidy, but works 30 hours a week, he or she will earn the equivalent of $19.52 per hour.


However, many migrants’ essential skills work visas require an hourly remuneration of at least $21.25.
Therefore, if an employer reduces a migrants’ working hours to 30 per week, and does not top up the subsidy (by $51.70 per week so the hourly rate is $21.25) the migrant and the employer will be in breach of the immigration requirements.


Many migrants work-to-residence visas, granted under the accredited employer regime, require the migrant to be paid at least $26.50 per hour for at least 40 hours per week. Therefore, if an employer is accepting the government subsidy, the employer will need to top the migrant’s remuneration by $474.20 per week, to continue to meet the visa requirements.


Can migrant workers be moved into different jobs?

Most migrant workers’ essential skills work visas stipulate the job, employer and location. The migrant can only work in different job or location, or for a different employer if the work visa is varied or a new work visa is obtained.


At present, we understand that INZ has a skeleton operation, so almost no work visa or variation applications are being processed. Therefore, it is almost impossible to vary a work visa to enable a migrant to move into a different position.

INZ have just announced that they will enable existing supermarket employees, who have student visas to work for more than 20 hours a week. The government has also announced that existing supermarket employees can move into jobs, other than the ones stipulated on their work visas, as long as that work remains within the supermarket.


What happens if a migrant worker’s visa expires before 2 April?

Immigration New Zealand has announced that migrants with visas that expire before 2 April must apply, online, for a further work visa. They will then be issued with an interim visa.


The interim visa will allow the migrant to lawfully remain in New Zealand during the lockdown and, hopefully, whilst their visa application is processed. This will depend on how long the application takes to process, of course.


However, the interim visa may not allow a migrant or to work. For example, a migrant who has a student visa and applies for a post-study work visa will not be given an interim visa that allows him or her to work


Therefore, it is very important that an employer sights a migrant’s letter confirming the grant of an interim visa and also notes the conditions of that interim visa, before allowing the migrant to continue to work beyond the expiry of the current visa.


Further, many migrants cannot submit online visa applications, as the online system does not cater for their circumstances. Those migrants need to urgently seek legal advice.


What happens if a migrant worker’s visa expires on or after 2 April?

Immigration New Zealand has announced that such visas will automatically be extended until 25 September.
However, this may not mean that the migrant or can keep working until 25 September 2020.


For example, most working holidaymakers can only work for a limited time-period within their visa. In many cases this is 12 months, but in some cases it is only three or six months. There has been no proposal to change this.


Therefore, it is important that working holidaymakers, who are intending to continue to work beyond the time frame permitted by their visa, apply for an appropriate work visa as soon as they are able to. They should not rely on the automatic extension that is being offered.


Also, of course, by September, the immigration requirements for work visas may have changed considerably. For example, there may be a lot more New Zealanders looking for work, which will make it harder for an employer to support a migrant’s work visa application. Therefore, again, we recommend applying for a work visa as soon as practicable.


What is the government doing to help migrants who are here?

As of the time of publishing, the government has only provided the guidance referred to in this article. We certainly hope that there will be some more such pragmatic announcements soon.


If there is not, then many employers will have no choice but to make their migrant workers redundant, as the employers will be unable to continue to pay the minimum remuneration required by the migrants’ visas.


These migrant workers, once redundant, will have limited or no access to government support. Most of them will also have no family to turn to, for help. Further, these migrants cannot return home. Therefore, New Zealand may soon have a large group of people, migrants, with no ability to earn income and no access to government support. This will have inevitable and serious social consequences.


Can migrant workers with new visas still travel to New Zealand?

No. This is unless they are essential workers, which is determined on a case-by-case basis, but does include nurses, radiologists, aged care workers.


Of course, those who are permitted to travel will also have to enter into isolation for two weeks, upon arrival, before they can start work.


However, work visas usually allow the migrant three months to enter New Zealand, to activate the visa. Therefore, hopefully the travel ban will have loosened within the next three months to allow those migrants to arrive.
If this does not happen, then Immigration New Zealand may consider a request to extend the first entry date.


Can migrant workers who travelled abroad, before the lockdown, return?

No. This is unless they are essential workers, which is determined on a case-by-case basis as described above. Of course, they will need to enter self-isolation upon arrival.


Will there be any other visa changes?

Yes, we anticipate that Immigration New Zealand will amend the immigration requirements, in a piece-meal fashion, over the coming weeks and months whilst they try to support both employers and also manage migrants’ individual situations.


Please keep in touch with us, for updates.

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