Planned changes to immigration rules could have a major impact on dairy farmers and their migrant employees. Anne Lee reports.
Proposed changes to immigration rules and work visas have dairy farmers, migrant staff and industry groups deeply concerned about the wide-ranging effects on families, productivity and rural communities.
The changes mean some immigrant families already well established in New Zealand will have to leave the country after three years.
Submissions closed on proposed changes at the end of May with the final changes due to be announced later this month and implemented from later in August.
DairyNZ developer Daniel Schmidt said while there are definitely some positives in the proposals there are also some significant changes that farmers and migrant staff and their families need to be aware of which will have potentially serious implications.
He’s urged farmers to get to grips with the full ramifications of the changes and talk to their Member of Parliament as soon as possible so the Government hears their concerns.
DairyNZ, Federated Farmers, other industry groups and individual farmers have all made submissions but the short time frame between the announcement of the changes in April and the submission closure date means there was little time for farmers to understand the somewhat complex proposed rules and let their views be known.
Greenstone Recruitment director Graydon Sharratt also urged farmers to contact their MP.
Partners of lower-skilled staff are only likely to get visitor visas unless they apply for and are granted their own work visa based on essential skills policy or another visa type such as a student visa but the length of these visas hasn’t been clarified by Immigration New Zealand.
He told those attending a workshop at the South Island Dairy Event (SIDE) the changes will have significant effects on the families of migrant staff deemed to be at the lower skill level because in many cases they’ll have to leave the country after three years.
New migrants coming in to fill jobs at the dairy assistant level will no longer be able to bring their partners or children with them.
That will have major roll-on effects in rural communities where local schools and economies have been bolstered by migrant numbers.
In 2016 the positions of herd manager and assistant herd manager were removed from the Immediate Skills Shortage List leaving only two dairy occupations – dairy farm manager and assistant farm manager.
Another major issue is that the ANZSCO code is out of date for dairy farming and only has two codes, each at either end of the skill spectrum – farm manager or dairy assistant (classified as dairy cattle farm worker).
In the past visas have been issued largely based on position descriptions and skill levels as described in the Australia New Zealand Skills Classification of Occupation (ANZSCO) codes.
Dairy farm managers are classified as ANZSCO skill level one while dairy assistants are classified as ANZSCO level five.
Sharratt explained the skill levels determine the duration of a work visa with skill levels four and five issued with a one-year visa while skill level one can receive a three-year visa with a maximum of five years.
Most other industries have ANZSCO level two and three codes but the dairy industry does not, he said.
Under the new rules remuneration thresholds are also being introduced as an additional means of defining skilled employment.
A minimum threshold of $23.49 an hour has been imposed for skill levels one to three which for a 40-hour week means $48,859 a year.
Positions earning less than that are deemed to be lower-skilled.
But calculating the threshold for a 50-hour week is more relevant for dairying.
In that case the taxable salary (including accommodation) at $23.50/hr will need to be more than $61,100/yr or they will be considered lower-skilled.
The rules as written on an hourly rate basis will create confusion within the industry where most salaries are annual rather than based on an hourly rate and the thresholds are not commensurate with salaries or hourly rates being paid in the dairy labour market, Sharratt said.
The other major change is that those migrants in the lower-skilled code – ANZSCO levels four and five – will be eligible for a work visa for just one year.
They must then apply for another visa for another year and can remain in their job providing their employer can prove they have advertised widely for an NZ applicant and have been unable to find a suitable candidate or someone suitable who they can train.
This is likely to mean they must have interviewed candidates put forward by WINZ and meet the New Zealand Labour Market Test.
The migrant staff member and employer can go through this process each year for up to three years after which time the migrant must have a stand-down period of one year (leave the country) before they can come back and go through the same process again.
They would not be eligible to bring partners or children with them.
Partners of lower-skilled staff are only likely to get visitor visas unless they apply for and are granted their own work visa based on essential skills policy or another visa type such as a student visa but the length of these visas hasn’t been clarified by Immigration New Zealand, Sharratt said.
Dependent children of lower-skilled staff are unlikely to get fee subsidies as domestic students and would therefore have to pay international student fees that in many cases are more than $10,000 a year.
Indications from Immigration New Zealand are that those lower-skilled staff already here on visas granted under the Immediate Skills Shortage List will be able to have their family remain until their visa expires.
Those on a one-year visa will be able to re-apply again for up to three years and partners and children already here would be able to stay until then and maintain their domestic student fee entitlement but would have to leave after three years.
At the higher skill level, the remuneration threshold stipulates the salary must be greater than $35.24/hour – which will also cause problems when adjusted for hours worked, Sharratt said.
At 50 hours/week the taxable salary (including accommodation) will have to be $91,650 or more.
Federated Farmers 2017 Remuneration Survey shows the mean salary for a farm manager is $65,651 equal to $25.25/hour for a 50-hour week.
Sharratt said that won’t necessarily mean the farm managers aren’t deemed to be skilled rather it will mean they will have to prove skilled employment by meeting the criteria set down by Immigration New Zealand just as they have had to in the past under the ANZSCO code.
Industry suggested changes to proposal
DairyNZ, Federated Farmers in consultation with others in the industry including recruitment and immigration consultants have suggested changes to the Government proposal that would see the ANZSCO skill levels four and five also included in the mid-skilled definition.
That would allow those migrant staff operating at an assistant herd manager or herd manager level to possibly gain visas for up to three years without a 12-month stand-down period.
It would also allow families of migrant staff to gain visas that would allow their partners and children to remain in the country and allow their children to attend school without paying overseas student fees.
The industry submissions have also proposed cutting out the minimum wage to $35.24/hour salary range for lower-skilled bracket.
Sharratt said the suggestions could be simply implemented and made complete sense for the dairy industry and the way the work force was structured.
It would create a more stable work force, maintain the incentive for training and importantly bolster rural communities.
His company had also submitted that the herd manager and assistant herd manager occupations be returned to the Immediate Skills Shortage List and that another ANZSCO code is created to cater for mid-tier roles such as herd manager, allowing a pathway to residency not currently available to them.
Only two positions fit the Australia New Zealand Skills Classification of Occupation (ANZSCO) codes – each at either end of the skill scale – farm manager (ANZSCO level one) or dairy farm worker (dairy assistant – ANZSCO level two).
There is currently no mid-skill level classification for dairy staff to enable them to get visas.
Proposed rules mean staff earning a total taxable income below $23.49/hr will be classed as lower-skilled.
Lower-skilled staff must apply for a new work visa every year for a maximum of three years and then must stand down (leave the country) for a year.
Lower-skilled staff will not be able to bring family with them.
If family come they will have to apply for their own visas, likely to be visitor or student visas.
Children of lower-skilled migrant staff would have to pay overseas student fees.
Rules not practical
James and Ceri Bourke farm at Culverden in North Canterbury and employ migrant staff.
James said the proposed changes would hit not only their own business but would also strike at the heart of what has become a thriving community.
The local area school his children attend would potentially lose 50 children from its roll of about 280.
“That all has a roll-on effect on the community and our businesses up here. If the school’s retracting at a rate of knots it makes it even harder to attract staff to the area,” he said.
He has a migrant staff member who was one year short of being eligible for the South Island Contribution Visa so would potentially be lost to his business when her visa expired.
The definitions of lower-skilled and lack of mid-skilled options for migrant staff were a nonsense when it came to the practicalities of farming.
His business operated a five (days) on two-off roster and with staff requiring four weeks annual leave, 13-14 statutory holidays and normal two days off after five days on, the annual days not working added up to about 137.
“So that means when the farm manager is off I need a competent person to be able to step up and take responsibility for the manager’s duties but there’s no provision for an assistant manager or senior herd manager under the rules.”
The rule requiring staff to stand down after three years will remove people from the work force who have had time and training spent on them to cover time off for management not only disrupting the day-to-day operation of the farm and lowering productivity but also reducing the farmer’s ability to meet legal requirements in compliance across a range of factors.
“Making qualified staff exit in areas of extreme labour shortage is jeopardising the health and safety and viability of dairy farms, creating competing legislation between immigration laws and the current Health and Safety Act 2015.”
The three-year and then stand-down rule would mean farms won’t have a stable work force and won’t have trained people in place who could then support New Zealanders new to farming – the very New Zealanders the Government was trying to bring out of unemployment and on to farms.
If migrant staff weren’t able to bring their families they would be less-inclined to take up jobs in this country.
James said being able to have partners and children living with them helped the productivity of migrant staff and having an open work visa status for the partner allowed them to perform a vital role in the part-time working sector.
Many were employed part time onfarm or in aged care in rural NZ, retail, cleaning and seasonal industries.
Migrant staff and their families have become part of the fabric of rural communities such as Culverden.
Under the proposed rules that integration would be unlikely and the migrant staff work force would be dominated by single men.
He said the implications of defining lower-skilled staff in the way it was proposed would be devastating to his business and his community.
The South Island deal
The South Island Contribution Visa is a new visa implemented on May 22 which is a one-off chance to obtain a work-to-residence visa.
All applications have to be submitted before May 23, 2018 with estimates that up to 1600 migrant staff already living in New Zealand will be eligible.
It’s open to those who have held an Essential Skills visa for five years or more for jobs in the South Island.
It is issued in two stages with a 30-month work-to-residence visa issued for the staff member and suitable visas issued for partners and children already here.
Over that time the staff member must remain working in the dairy industry and in the WINZ region in which their employment is located.
After the first stage a residence from work visa may be issued with the residency approval having a two-year endorsement that requires the staff member to stay in the South Island in the region specified on their visa throughout the two-year period.
There are no English language requirements and provision has been made for those Filipinos caught up in the recent false documents situation.
While it’s been heralded by farmers and migrants in the South Island as a good move there are concerns for those in the North Island who won’t have the same opportunity.