Emergency unemployment benefit for redundant migrant workers

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Everyone in New Zealand faces tough times ahead: unemployment figures are set to skyrocket with the coming recession as we move out of lockdown.

Yet the situation could get much worse if many of the 300,000 migrants who hold temporary visas in New Zealand become jobless: poverty would increase nationwide, and as they turn to working “under the table” in desperation the New Zealand job market could suffer.

The situation is dire and urgent, yet a simple solution exists that could fix this problem.

Why happens if a migrant worker loses their job?
Most work visa holders in New Zealand hold an Essential Skills Work Visa. As a condition of this visa, the holder must work full-time, and for one specified employer at one workplace.

If such a worker loses their job, they are prevented by law from seeking employment elsewhere unless they obtain a new visa – and this is simply not practical at this time.

Why can’t migrant workers just get a new visa?
The COVID-19 crisis has seen Immigration New Zealand’s visa processing slow to a trickle: currently, their visa processing centres are closed until further notice.

According to their website, INZ's processing times for Essential Skills Work Visas is estimated at 64 working days with their offices open. Even assuming this figure is accurate, and that the processing times don’t increase in future, few employers are willing to hold a job position open for 2-3 months while their worker’s visa comes through.

What can migrant workers do, then?
Ordinarily, they could return to their own countries as a last resort, but this option is closed to many of them: for example, India has banned all commercial flights from operating until further notice. The reality is that migrant workers may be stuck here for many months, whether they like it or not.

The Social Security Act 2018 explicitly forbids temporary visa holders from accessing social benefits, so they may not expect help from the New Zealand government either.

With no source of income, they face a stark choice: work illegally “under the table”, or face starvation and homelessness for themselves and their families.

Who does this affect?
Everybody in New Zealand is affected by this: migrants and citizens alike.

Of course, our hardworking and taxpaying migrant workers will face the worst consequences: if they refuse to work unlawfully, they face extreme poverty. If they choose to breach their visa conditions out of desperation, they face deportation or exploitation: many unscrupulous employers use their illegal workers' lack of legal protection to mistreat them.

These workers may remain unlawfully employed for many years, fearful of approaching authorities lest they be punished. We could see a large underclass of illegal workers become entrenched in the New Zealand economy in the long-term.

But what about New Zealand citizens and residents? They will bear the brunt too: kiwi businesses will go bankrupt as their competitors undercut them with cheap illegal labour. Kiwi workers will see wages plummet and positions evaporate as well.

The government will not receive any tax from the illegal labour, but will need to spend more to fix the problems that result. The economic recovery from COVID-19 will be much harder in such a situation.

What is the solution?
The Ministry of Social Development has simply advised migrants to seek help from their embassy if they run out of money in New Zealand.

This solution is utterly unacceptable when a simple and relatively inexpensive fix exists: issue an emergency, temporary, one-time benefit to redundant migrant workers so that they may support themselves until the situation stabilises or they are able to return home.

No legislative change is needed: the Minister of Social Development, Hon Carmel Sepuloni could implement Section 64 of the Social Security Act (Emergency benefit: grant during epidemic in New Zealand) to grant a benefit as an exception to the Act.

We all remember when the Prime Minister announced a move towards “an economics of kindness” in this country. We all remember when she told migrants that “They are us” following the horrors of March 2019.

Now is the time for this government to turn its words into action: the cost of doing nothing would be far greater and affect our communities for many years to come.

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