New Zealand has tens of thousands of migrant workers on essential skills work visas – particularly in the hospitality, retail and aged care sectors, where their skills are in high demand. At least two of these sectors have effectively shut down for an unknown period of time because of the COVID-19 crisis, and most others will continue to struggle through the economic times ahead. So what should be done in relation to visa rules and restrictions to keep migrant workers here in the interim?

Immigration New Zealand’s (INZ’s) announcement of automatic extensions of temporary visas until the end of September 2020 is welcome news. But it’s going to be interesting to see how INZ deals with situations where, due to the economic effects of the COVID-19 crisis, NZ employers can’t afford to pay their migrant worker employees who are on essential skills work visas the minimum rate of pay stipulated in those workers’ visas. So far, INZ has been silent on this issue.

The MSD website advises NZ employers, “If you are receiving the COVID-19 Wage Subsidy, you must try your hardest to pay the employee named in your application, at least 80% of their usual wages. If that isn’t possible, you need to pay at least the subsidy rate (ie, full-time or part-time).”

However, the employer wage subsidy rate of $585.80 per week effectively amounts to approx. $686 gross p/wk and therefore only approx. $17.15 gross per hour (based on a 40 hour work week). Without a hefty top-up by the employer, a subsidy-only rate will be well below INZ’s current minimum pay rate of $21.68 per hour gross for essential skilled work visas holders who are working in mid skilled roles and whose work visa conditions stipulate they must receive that hourly rate at a minimum.

Will INZ relax the minimum pay rate requirements during these exceptional times so that migrant employees aren’t breaching their visa conditions if they are paid at a lesser rate?

For salaried employees who are on essential skills work visas, a reduction in their working hours to say 30 hours per week (the minimum number of hours which INZ considers to be ‘full time’ employment) might increase their effective hourly rate in order to satisfy INZ’s minimum pay rate requirements for their particular visa.

Another related (and perhaps more pressing) issue is the question of leave. If at the direction of their employer a migrant employee takes paid, unpaid or some kind of “discretionary” or “special” leave because their employer can’t afford to keep them on during the lock-down period or longer, at least then the migrant employee isn’t “working” for a lower pay rate in breach of their visa conditions. But just how long a leave period will INZ be prepared to accept before it considers the migrant worker has breached their visa conditions by not working? Two months? Three? Six?

Moreover, what about those Accredited Employer (Work to Residence) Work visa holders who are required to earn a minimum salary of $79,560 per annum (or $55,000 pre-Sept 2019) in order to be eligible to apply for NZ Residence? Will INZ relax the rules for them?

One can only hope that INZ comes to the party on these and the many other similar/related issues that are sure to arise over coming weeks. A sensible approach would be for INZ to relax or even remove altogether the minimum pay requirements for current employer assisted work visa holders for a period of time. We don’t know how long we are going to be in this situation but one thing is clear: we have to find a way to accommodate those migrants whose skills will continue to be in short supply in NZ in the long run.

INZ, over to you…