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Alastair McClymont: Beware Ignorant Debate on Motivated Migrants

Just who are the migrants supposedly stealing our houses and jobs? There have been plenty of knee-jerk reactions recently about the appropriate number of migrants that New Zealand can absorb each year. There has also been evidence of much ignorance on the subject.

In the 12 months to April, New Zealand received 68,000 net migrants (long-term arrivals minus long-term departures). New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has suggested the number be reduced to a maximum of 15,000 a year and as few as 7000. Economist Michael Reddell has stated that cutting migration to 10,000 a year would lead to a reduction in house prices. But the debate about migrant numbers is more complicated than Mr Peters or Mr Reddell would have us believe. What is often not mentioned in the inflamed rhetoric surrounding this issue is the complex mix of types of immigrants that the figure of 68,000 represents. Shamefully, Indian and Chinese migrants have too often borne the brunt of our community's negative reactions to the high number of migrants, but total net migrants also include your German au-pair, the French or British waitress at your local cafe, the young, Aussie, seasonal worker at the ski field or your friend's son returning home from work in London. An analysis of this figure of 68,000 net migrants may surprise many. Over a quarter include temporary work visa-holders who originate primarily from the UK, France, Germany and Australia. This includes young people on holiday work schemes who may be in New Zealand for only a year.


Another quarter include New Zealanders who have been overseas for more than a year and are returning home to live, and Australians who intend to live here for longer than a year.

Just under a quarter are foreign students, who are counted as net migrants because they stay here for one year or more. And under a quarter include new residents, of whom 45 per cent are Indian and Chinese nationals. They apply for residency here after completing their New Zealand qualifications.

Which of these categories would you prefer to reduce? There are serious implications in every category if we reduce immigration. Accepting fewer international students would result in a massive hit to our economy. International education is New Zealand's fifth largest export industry, contributing $2.85 billion to the economy annually and supporting more than 30,000 jobs. Or do we accept fewer young Europeans on working holiday visas? This would affect tourism and hospitality industry staffing. And we wouldn't want to discourage young Kiwis from returning here to live with their savings and their internationally acquired work skills. New foreign residents have come in for heated criticism for being supposedly one of the leading causes of our inflated housing market and stealing low-skilled jobs from locals. In my firm's experience, very few temporary visa-holders buy houses. They almost always wait until they become residents. Accepting fewer international students would result in a massive hit to our economy. International education is New Zealand's fifth largest export industry, contributing $2.85 billion to the economy annually and supporting more than 30,000 jobs.


"Visible" migrants working in low-skilled industries are most likely either students working part-time or student graduates who are entitled to work for up to three years. The filling of low-skilled jobs by migrant workers is just a by-product of the export education industry. The only low-skilled workers being imported fill jobs in the horticulture, dairy and health care industries. When I began specializing in immigration law 20 years ago, Indians hired Indians, Chinese hired Chinese and Kiwis hired Kiwis. Attitudes of New Zealand employers have since shifted. I regularly speak with employers who are desperate to retain and recruit migrant employees. They all complain about the casual Kiwi attitude towards work and their constant "sick days", particularly on Mondays. By contrast, these employers find that migrants are more highly motivated to work and succeed at their jobs. Many employers testify to the fact that 90 per cent or more job applications come from migrants, so why aren't Kiwis applying for the jobs?


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