Visa lags put staffing of summer hotspots under the gun
As much as half of the hospitality’s workforce comprises seasonal migrant workers
Industries that rely on seasonal migrant workers are still facing serious lags in visa applications, with some wondering whether there will be improvements before the summer tourism season kicks in.
As a result of lags of weeks and months in processing work visas – including essential skills, skilled migrants and permanent resident visas – employers and Immigration New Zealand (INZ) have had emergency talks that have resulted in major changes being announced.
Changes that INZ signalled recently to employers include consolidating processing into fewer and larger offices, deferring the withdrawal of visa processing from Manila, grouping applications into a category instead of by location and hiring more staff.
But some employers and agents are wondering whether it will be enough to ensure the coming tourism high season has enough of a workforce to draw from.
Hospitality is one of the sectors most severely affected by the delays, with as much as half of its workforce at any one-time comprising seasonal migrant workers.
Chris Buckley, who runs the Pub on Wharf and Muskets and Moonshine bars in Queenstown and is a national board member of Hospitality New Zealand, said angst over the visa delays had consumed the national organisation at recent board meetings.
“It’s certainly got a lot harder in the past two years – not only have processing times increased but also the amount of information needed has increased. And, also, an applicant can be asked to provide a huge amount of new and unexpected information at any time in the process.”
Buckley, whose own workforce is roughly 75% people on work visas, said he’s seen a typical case unfold recently; a chef, working for him for a year without incident, applied for another work visa roughly seven weeks before his current visa lapsed (visas can not be renewed or extended).
He received a call two days before it lapsed to say he was being issued an interim visa – meaning he could not work – and that his actual visa would be at least a further seven weeks away, meaning another seven weeks without pay.
“And I know for a fact he is not the only one in this situation,” Buckley said. “There are workers across hospitality waiting for visas and employers in impossible situations, because they have no certainty about their workforces, and some even feel forced into acting illegally.”
Russell Gray, a director and shareholder in Auckland’s Good Group and Auckland branch president of Hospitality NZ, took a more conciliatory view, saying Hospitality NZ and INZ had acknowledged to each other that the visa application processes needed urgent improvement – and that INZ was acting to do exactly that.
“I’m not defending INZ but we do have to acknowledge there has been a huge amount of growth in the volume of applications that are coming into the agency – as well as the fact that not all those applications have the correct documentation,” he said.
One of the problems was that employers could not act as advisers to prospective employees, leaving them to deal either through agents or directly with INZ which, if for example, English is a second language, could lead to difficulties.
Gray said the efforts to improve the system were welcome as the Auckland hospitality scene relied heavily on seasonal migrant workers – especially in the lead-up to America’s Cup.
INZ assistant general manager Peter Elms said the agency was doing everything possible to minimise delays.
“Visa application volumes have been steadily increasing across all visa types, which are continuing to impact the timeliness of some visa types.”
He said as a result of the measures announced recently, visa application volumes were already starting to reduce “and will continue to do so as new staff become more experienced.”
However, times in most categories are not yet reduced from two years ago. The latest figures show, for example, that 95% of applications for permanent resident visas would be completed within 57 days, skilled migrant visas within 13 months and essential skills within four months.
By comparison, by November 2017, 95% of applications for permanent resident visas were completed within 26 days, skilled migrant visas within 17 months and essential skills visas within three months.
Dr Carsten Hallwass, New Zealand Immigration Concepts Director, said the agency had to manage client expectations, and made its best estimate based on its experience, saying there are “no reliable figures” from which to ascertain an exact outcome. But his agency was spending a lot of its time consoling clients who were anxious about excessively long wait times.
“The new systems, designed to allow people to apply online for visas, have certainly not made anything faster.”
Frustrated by waits
Hallwass points to one of the easier applications – for a permanent visa – for which residents simply have to prove they have been in the country 184 days in the previous two years. The details are easily uploaded online but that’s followed by a two-week wait for acknowledgement, a two-week wait for the passport to be returned and then several more weeks for a decision to be made.
“We are very frustrated by the waits,” he said. “Some of our clients are really struggling and, of course, no employers like it.”
National Party immigration spokesperson Stuart Smith said he had a steady stream of complaints about the visa situation from employers who said they were delaying investment and expansion plans because they can’t guarantee any staff on visas would be able to get new visas promptly.
Asked why he thought the system was struggling to cope, he said there was “clearly a lack of resourcing – there should be enough money to fund the changes INZ have made to expedite its processes.”
He also questioned whether there was deliberate underfunding of the system, “in line with the policy objectives of lower immigration by the government’s coalition partner.”
Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway rejected that point, saying INZ had recruited more staff to deal with visa delays already without asking for any more resources to deal with it.
“There’s no evidence of any ‘underfunding’.”
He said he was “very concerned” about visa processing delays and had raised this with the heads of MBIE and INZ.