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Submissions to MBIE over the changes have now closed, but Dan Schmidt, of the DairyNZ people team, is encouraging farmers to talk to their MPs if they think their businesses will be affected. The new rules are due to take effect in August.
Schmidt would be discussing the rule changes with Canterbury farmers at two forums, in Culverden and Ashburton, on June 15.
Under the proposal, all migrant workers earning at the low end of the pay scale -- less than $23.49 an hour -- would be eligible only for one-year work visas, renewable for three years before a one-year mandatory standdown.
Partners and children would not be allowed in unless they qualified for a visa in their own right.
DairyNZ says that would apply to many workers in the industry.
Those earning at the high end – more than $35.24 an hour – would be eligible to apply for five-year visas, to bring family and to have a pathway to residency.
However, workers earning $23.49 - $35.24 an hour would be eligible for three-year visas, with family – but only if they were classified as skilled workers under the ANZSCO (Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations) system.
That includes farm manager and assistant farm manager, but it leaves lower-skilled classifications including herd manager and dairy assistant eligible only for the lowest-level visas. They would have to be earning unfeasibly high wages before being allowed off the bottom rung.
“There’s no mid-skill band for these guys,” said Schmidt. $35.24 an hour represented an annual salary of about $73,000 for a 40-hour week or about $90,000 for a 50-hour week. He said it was a quite high threshold for them to have to meet.
Schmidt said the affected workers were making a valuable contribution to the industry.
“In every interaction with people that we have, [farmers] say these guys are as important as the farm managers. There needs to be a pathway for them to stay in the country – recognising that if after three years they don’t meet the $23.49 then perhaps there’s an argument to say they’re not skilled; but trying to get them from the low paid band to more than $35, that’s a very tough path.”
He said the problem was the way the proposals used a combination of remuneration and ANZSCO gradings to define eligibility.
“There ought to be a mid-skill level, and actually salary is a much better proxy for judging skill level than ANZSCO because there’s a difference between, say, a herd manager who is perhaps in the Waikato on a 300-cow farm, versus a herd manager in Canterbury on a 1000-cow farm.
“There’s a difference in responsibility and quite likely there’s a difference in salary. Using remuneration as a proxy for skill level is much fairer and takes away some of that subjectivity that’s been around immigration for a while.”
Schmidt said he would encourage people attending the meetings to talk to their MPs about the proposals. Although submissions to MBIE had closed, they could still influence the process before the changes were implemented in August.
He said employment in the dairy industry was not necessarily a case of choosing either migrants or Kiwis. A stable core workforce gave farmers a better chance of taking on the local school leaver. “You can’t expect people to mentor and train Kiwis if they’re struggling, fighting fires, trying to retain people.”
However, Schmidt said one proposed change was very positive – the announcement of a South Island Contribution Visa which certain workers who he said had been “stuck in a no-man’s-land” until now could now apply for residency.
Despite contributing to New Zealand for years they had had no pathway to residency because while the industry considered them skilled, ANZSCO did not.
Schmidt said DairyNZ wanted to dispel a common misconception that the programme was first in, first served, and limited to 4000 people in total. He said there was no need to rush because the number was only an estimate, and eligible workers had until May 22 2018 to apply.