December 2, 2022

Migrant rural worker visa change welcomed as farmers feel pressure of border closure

Changes to skilled migrant visa rules have been welcomed by immigration adviser Ben De’Ath of The Regions Immigration Law and Recruitment.

De’Ath specialises in placing skilled migrant workers in dairy farms throughout New Zealand.

He has about 130 workers on clients’ farms around Northland and over 2000 throughout New Zealand.

De’Ath said the huge growth of dairying, particularly in the country’s more remote corners, has led to a shortage of skilled workers “and that was before Covid-19 struck”.

“This has been the toughest calving period for farms which are short of staff with the border closed. Dairy NZ has said there is a shortage of at least 1000 workers in the industry, and I’d bet there is more like 1500.

“There are a lot of very tired people out there on dairy farms. They are carrying a heavy burden”

De’Ath, who is an immigration lawyer, is holding nationwide seminars on the topics of skilled migrant workers and the impact of immigration policy on New Zealand’s agriculture sector.

The first of the 20 seminars was held this week in Whangarei. About 40 attended.

Recent changes to work visas mean skilled migrants who are already in New Zealand can now stay and attain visas lasting three years instead of one. They must be receiving the median wage of at least $25.50 an hour including the value of their farmhouse accommodation which is always part of their work package. They can remain in the country while they apply for the visa, so long as they are earning the NZ median wage by the start of their 4th dairy season.

“The three-year visa means they can also now bring their families with them, and we now have a more realistic pathway to residence.

“It’s a change that we lobbied hard for over a number of years. These skilled migrants and their families make a valuable contribution to rural businesses and communities.”

The new visa rules have given employers and migrants more certainty and will be a considerable help with staff retention.

He said farmers would now be encouraged to invest more in training, without having to worry about losing staff every June.

De’Ath said for anyone questioning why farm jobs cannot be easily filled by New Zealanders, the answer lies in the remote location of the farms, and an already large industry doubling in size in a short period.

“It is completely unrealistic to think anyone would easily move from being unemployed in the city to 4am starts and 30 minutes to the nearest dairy.

“There are some Kiwis who have transitioned to rural work successfully following Covid-19 redundancies, which is great. Horticulture, with its shorter picking seasons, is probably a more realistic area for people to transition to fulltime work.”

He said it was “manifestly false” to say New Zealand had too much immigration when about 80 per cent of regions had stagnant or declining populations.

“It might be true for the main centres that they do not need more people, but it is not true for rural areas.”

Encouraging young people into rural careers is also a good aspiration, but most young people tended to head to cities “including myself, so no judgements here but we just need to deal with reality”.

“I’m all for education and dairy farming is a good career choice, but burnt out farmers need help now.”

De’Ath’s company places skilled migrants who have often completed agricultural degrees in their home countries and are seeking to work in the famed New Zealand agriculture industry.

Many of the workers placed by The Regions service are from the Philippines, although he also has Germans, South Africans, Sri Lankans and Nepalese milking cows on clients’ farms.

He said Filipino workers coveted positions in New Zealand, and many completed their agricultural degrees in the Philippines, then headed to the Middle East for experience before setting their sights on New Zealand.

He said one of the key lessons has been to keep the same nationalities together in a workplace because blending three different cultures in a work environment is harder than two.

“It’s not always a good idea to have the United Nations at work.

“The farmer and staff have to learn about each other, learn the mannerisms that might cause confusion and what ‘yes sir’ actually means. This becomes even more difficult with more than one culture among the staff.

“I encourage farmers to go out and show their staff exactly how they want the jobs done as everyone wants things done a different way. If they show them how they want it done, they will get a much better result as just telling them might get a bit lost in translation.”

De’Ath has been helping about 100 migrant workers who had jobs in New Zealand but had been out of the country and become stranded when the border restrictions came in.

“We’ve managed to get approval for about 40 to come back in October, who are in 2IC or farm management positions.”

Farmers will have to pay airfares and quarantine fees involved with getting their staff members back into the country.

“With more families eventually reunited once border restrictions are lifted, they will be able to make a big contribution. The partners are often also skilled and can take up jobs in ancillary services in the rural community.”

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