In demand but disempowered: why low-skilled migrant workers face even worse exploitation under NZ’s new rules

The New Zealand government claims its recently announced changes to visa rules will address exploitation and unsustainable migration. In reality, the new rules are likely to have the opposite effect.


  • Francis L Collins

    Professor of Sociology, University of Auckland, Waipapa Taumata Rau

The exploitation of migrant workers has become a growing problem in New Zealand. Reports of fraud, wage theft, job and visa premiums (where people are charged money for a job or visa) and other forms of workplace exploitation have become common.

These accounts suggest exploitation has become a systemic feature of some parts of the New Zealand labour market – including agriculture and hospitality.

But rather than addressing exploitation, the key effect of the proposed changes is to disempower people on work visas who are assessed as “low skilled”.

Additional burdens on low-skilled visa holders

Under the new rules, visa holders classified as level 4 or 5 by the Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations (ANZSCO) – such as building labourers, retail supervisors and dairy farm workers – have to meet a new set of standards.

These workers will need to prove a minimum standard of English and demonstrate relevant work experience or qualifications. They will also have shorter time limits on their visas and be subject to a stand-down period of 12 months outside New Zealand once their visa has expired.

Under the new rules, low-skilled work visas will be for two years, with the possibility of extending the visa for a third year.

These additional burdens on low-skilled work visa holders increase the prospect of workplace exploitation by adding extra hurdles to the application and renewal of visas, and by reducing the ability work visa holders have to negotiate with employers.

While English language standards seem like a sensible option – it allows migrants to access information about their rights and understand an employment contract – access to information alone does not address the circumstances leading to exploitation.

This new requirement will create financial burdens likely to encourage profit-making by migration intermediaries and English language testing agencies. Shorter work visas and stand-down periods directly reduce the rights of migrants in the workplace, and offer fewer opportunities for skill development.

Because they need work to repay the costs of migration faster, migrants who have debt related to their jobs have even fewer reasons to question exploitative employment practices.

Recycling old ideas

Also striking is the way the new rules recycle regulations that have already been shown to generate workplace exploitation.

Prior to the introduction of the accredited employer work visa by Labour in 2021, the ANZSCO skills assessment was a key tool for classifying work visa types and differentiating migrant rights. The accredited employer visa scheme was meant to streamline the visa process and was based on the wages migrants earn.

It was the previous National immigration minister, Michael Woodhouse, who in 2017 introduced the three-year limits on the time low-skilled work visa holders could stay in New Zealand. The impact of COVID border closures meant these limits never came into effect.

The cumulative effect of these approaches, along with the long-standing practice of tying work visas to employers, means it’s difficult for low-skilled migrant workers to change employers even when they are faced with exploitation.

Even if they can change jobs, they only have limited time to earn income to recoup the cost of migration to New Zealand.

Some employers hire people on work visas because they know they are unable to negotiate conditions or challenge instances of workplace exploitation.

Restrictive rules and regulations on work visas thus support migrant exploitation because they take away freedom and choice. Work visa holders have less freedom than other workers in terms of which jobs they can take, their ability to change jobs, and the time limits on working in New Zealand.

Recent reports have also shown the accredited employer work visa scheme has created something of a marketplace for exploitation. With demand for migrant workers growing, some recruiters have accumulated hundreds of job “tokens”, which represent each position the employer can fill with a suitable migrant worker. These tokens are being sold to workers at a premium.

A better approach is possible

But it is possible to develop migration policies that encourage reduced exploitation. Other labour migrants in New Zealand enjoy rights broadly in line with those experienced by citizens and permanent residents.

This includes people in high-skilled occupations, who either are eligible for direct-to-residence pathways, or visas of up to five years. Australian citizens and permanent residents have virtually no restrictions on their migration and work.

We should ask why it is considered acceptable that people in jobs deemed low-skilled, and disproportionately from Asia, the Pacific and South America, are given fewer rights and made vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

To reduce exploitation, visa rules need to empower migrants in the workplace and in their lives. This means:

  • visas should not be tied to employers
  • work visa time limits should exceed employment contracts to allow labour market mobility
  • all migrants should be able to live with their families
  • there should be viable pathways to settlement and adequate support for social inclusion.

Such approaches have the added benefit of reducing the high turnover of people on work visas, presenting a more viable pathway to sustainable and just migration settings.

The Conversation

Francis L Collins currently receives funding from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. He has previously received other funding from Te Apārangi Royal Society of New Zealand. In 2019, he was also commissioned by MBIE to research the causes of migrant exploitation in New Zealand.

/Courtesy of The Conversation. View in full here.