Dec 26, 2007

Labour Shortages Really Hurting

One of our team related a story a few weeks back. Driving between Queenstown and the West Coast she passed large groups of workers from Vanuatu walking into Crowmwell beside the state highway. The workers were constantly being tooted or waved at by passing cars. It was all friendly. The locals appeared delighted that these workers were in Central Otago. Incredible for a conservative part of the country? No, these workers are the salvation.

A read of today's Otago Daily Times shows why. On page one a story suggests that export quality cherries will be left to rot this year because there are not enough workers available to help pick them. Another story on Page 19 (by the same journalist Rosie Manins) tells a very similar story.

All those interviewed suggest that while the migrant workers from Vanuatu and elsewhere in the Pacific are a positive development, changes to the employment rules for backpackers and other foreign visitors have created such a perception of difficulty in obtaining work permits that these visitors don't bother to apply for work. Yet, for the Central Otago cherry harvest, and the grape harvest, casual work by short term visitors to New Zealand has proved essential to counter the serious people shortage in the economy (New Zealand has one of the highest labour utilisation rates, and lowest unemployment rates in the world).

Why has it become more difficult for backpackers etc. to get the casual work that is so essential to parts of our economy? According to one of the ODT articles, it was because then Social Development and Employment Minister David Benson-Pope believed that the schemes that had allowed backpackers to work "created border security problems, which caused trouble for industry because of lack of controls on workers and how they are treated."

The new policy allows a foreign visitor to New Zealand without a work permit to apply to work for but one employer for a maximum of 28 days. The application costs $180. Under previous policy, foreign workers were able to secure permits for up to 9 months. Industry has been screaming ever since the changes were made and in response Government has backed down a little and allowed employers, as a transitional measure, the opportunity to employ foreign workers for up to 4 months starting 26 November. Unfortunately, the ODT articles suggest that the damage has been done. The perception is out there that foreign workers, other than those brought here under formal migrant employment schemes, can't work, so they don't apply for vacancies.

This is not just a problem for rural New Zealand (non-Labour voting parts of the country). The towns and cities had also become dependent on foreign workers to keep the tourist and hospitality industries alive. Now these sectors are hurting too. Cherries rotting on the ground instead of being exported is serious enough, but tourists getting slow or no service in even more of a worry. Tourism is our biggest export industry. Bigger even than dairy.

Why has this situation developed? Is it really a reaction to 9/11?

No, it is the result of the traditional fear by organised labour (who continue to pull the strings of the left wing faction of the Labour Party) of foreign workers. Organised labour have seen the current skills and people shortages as a great opportunity to negotiate wages up without there being any commensurate increase in productivity. The last thing the unions want is for employers to continue to enjoy the safety valve that was the previous policy towards foreign visitors. And the union strategy has worked to some degree. Have we heard that many screams about increases in the minimum wage?

The Hive believes that this is one area where National can differentiate itself from Labour. We need an urgent return to the rules that allowed foreign visitors to work for up to 9 months (and why not extend this to 12 months?). The migrant employment scheme from the Pacific needs to be expanded. And while National are at it, a full overhaul of immigration policy, to make it even easier to come to New Zealand to live and work, would be hugely beneficial for the economy.

And National needs to fire the entire staff of NZAID and start again. We need to see the countries to our north in the same was as Cromwell residents. Our labour shortage salvation. Aid policy should be re-oriented away from the current "poverty alleviation" dogma to one which focuses on education and skills training. While for Australia and New Zealand the demographic outlook is grim, with an increasingly aged population inevitable, we have a large pool of eager and young workers sitting unemployed or underemployed in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. Lets make them even more employable, and help move them into productive employment for a few years in Australia and New Zealand. This will help Australia and new Zealand, help the economies of the Pacific as a proportion of the wages earned are repatriated, help the economies of the Pacific further by returning experienced and better skilled workers, help the economies of the Pacific by providing a better educated and better skilled workforce, by reducing the dependence of the region on Chinese and Taiwanese cheque book diplomacy, and increasing stability (there is nothing more unstable than the current mass of young unemployed or underemployed men in these countries) in a very fragile region.