New Zealand General Election 2017 and Temporary Migrants

This year’s general election is a very strange affair in some respects and yet majority of the on goings are not unexpected at all. The anti-immigrant rhetoric that most political parties are employing is not only spreading racism against migrants but it has also deepened a division between well settled migrants and migrants on temporary visas. Such ploys are the norm for right wing neo-liberal parties but it is quite shocking to see the ‘left wing’ parties sing to the same tune.

Like most countries on this globe we live in a capitalist economy. To put it very simply the capitalist model’s primary goal is continuous growth of profit. All other forms of growth under this model are secondary, sometimes a by-product, and not necessarily a strategic part of the plan. In order to increase profit on an ongoing basis while competing aggressively, cost cuts are necessary for capitalism to thrive. In the process there has been and always will be exploitation of natural resources, environment and labour to say the least.

My focus in analysing the current political environment in New Zealand is labour in the form of migrant workers, particularly those currently in New Zealand on temporary visas.

The fact that thousands of migrant workers have been brought in year after year under the guise of world class education that could lead to permanent residence (as advertised by government websites), the fact that the English language requirements for studying in New Zealand are abolished when the vulnerable migrant labour pool needs to be flooded, the fact that we have a system of bonded labour by tying migrant worker’s visa to their employer and allowing exploitation to flourish, the fact that international students can be deported for being victims of fraud committed by immigration agents that the government refuses to license because it is too expensive to do so, the fact that the government provides no protection to whistleblowing migrant workers in exploitative situations, the fact that there’s only about 60 Labour Inspectors for the entire country, the fact that exploiting employers can wind up and open shop under different names and the fact that the government allows the wages and working conditions to be driven down for all workers in New Zealand by allowing sub-human treatment of migrant workers is enough to conclude that the ruling National party sides with the rich minority and not the majority working class (residents and migrants) that struggles to make ends meet.

The remaining right wing parties like NZ First, ACT, United Future and others are just varying shades of blue on either side of National and therefore don’t require further elaboration here.

Historically migrants have generally voted for the Labour party that is currently in opposition. However, that may not be the case in the upcoming election given that Labour managed to create an anti-Chinese sentiment by releasing a ‘report’ about the Auckland housing market back in 2015. The election policies announced by Labour mention tightening of rules for foreign property speculators to buy existing houses. The foreign speculators will then be allowed to buy new houses built under a Labour government? The policies do not include clear statement about houses are for living in and the owner must live in the house they own i.e. one family/person equals one house. Plenty of rich New Zealanders have also used houses as an investment. What will happen to them under a Labour government? Labour’s Fiscal Plan released few days ago is about budget responsibilities, the document looks very corporatised and is not easy to follow for a lay person. Workers don’t need to be blinded with gloss, they simply need to know if they will be uplifted enough to make ends meet. But Labour promises to increase the legal minimum wage to $16.50 per hour and then to two thirds of average wage when economic conditions allow. That could be never if it does not suit the ledger. Under Labour the living wage would only be for ‘core government employees and overtime for contractors to government agencies’. Why not pay all workers at least a living wage? Contractors to government agencies? That translates into Labour will continue to support privatisation.

And now in the race for vote grabbing Labour has once again proven to be anti-immigrant by announcing a severely reduced quota of migration into New Zealand should they form government. The reason being that the infrastructure cannot cope with recent migration of approximately 70,000 per year. The present government has certainly not invested in the infrastructure at the required rate. Nett migration has always been controlled and known to the government. Therefore the problem lies with the government’s inability or lack of will to fix the issue and not the migrants themselves. Let’s suppose cutting nett migration to low numbers (20,000 to 30,000 as suggested by Labour) would alleviate problems such as housing shortage, traffic congestion etc. in the near future. But that is a number for the future, what about the migrants already here on temporary visas? Temporary migrants who have invested all they have financially, emotionally and socially face a dim future. These workers have contributed to New Zealand economy heavily through international student fees, income tax and general living costs. On average each international student spends about $30,000 per year making up approximately $5bn export industry. Hospitality, tourism, farming and building industries are also heavily reliant on temporary migrant workers. It would be much more sensible for Labour to keep hold of these migrant workers permanently and strengthen their rights instead of replacing them with another set of vulnerable migrant workers like National plans to.

There is a glimmer of hope among the atmosphere of despondency and disillusionment. The Green party announced their election policies last week. All benefits will be increased by 20%, beneficiaries will be able to work longer hours without taking a cut to their benefit, minimum wage will increase to 17.75 per hour next year and will keep increasing until it is 66% of average wage by 2020, income above $150,000 per year will be taxed at 40%, removal of all financial sanctions on beneficiaries, no intrusive interrogation of sole parents by WINZ. For migration the Greens will increase the refugee quota to 5000 being the highest compared to all other parties so far and there will be no cap on ‘sustainable migration’ for all other categories. While in absolute terms these policies are not radical or revolutionary, but relatively speaking the Greens have announced the most positive, progressive and easy to grasp changes for the working class should they be in government. Despite the fact that the Greens’ policies do not address the settlement of migrant workers in New Zealand on temporary visas, we should be positive about the Greens’ leftward move. Should Labour form a government after 23 September we expect the Greens to keep travelling further Left and pulling Labour along with them.

As the temporary migrants have no voting rights, it is up to the rest of us to take their concerns further this election. It is also the responsibility of more settled migrants to take under their wing the newly arrived fellow workers and migrants.

Anu Kaloti
Migrant Workers Association of Aotearoa


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