The Government is overhauling the scheme that allows international students to continue to work in New Zealand, in an effort to stamp out exploitation.
Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway expects the proposed changes will affect 12,000 to 16,000 people, and result in a drop in annual net migration.
The proposed visa changes, announced on Saturday, would see the requirement removed for post-study work visas to be sponsored by a particular employer - something that has led to some migrant workers being exploited by their employer without the freedom to speak out, for fear of losing their job and their right to live and work in New Zealand.
"There have been too many cases where migrant workers have been subject to exploitation because they are dependent on a particular employer to stay in the country," Lees-Galloway said.
The proposed overhaul would also significantly change the ability for international students to gain a visa post-study. Especially those who had completed a shorter, or non-degree-level qualification.
The length of post-study work visas for courses below degree level would be limited to one year. People who completed a course of less than two years would not be eligible for a post-study work visa.
Graduates would be able to apply for other visas after their courses finished, or their post-study work visas ran out. But they would need to meet the usual skills and labour market tests.
"Work experience in New Zealand is important to many students who come here to study. My proposals retain this while restricting an avenue of exploitation," Lees-Galloway said.
"Too many students are being sold a false dream in New Zealand that the current post-study work rights can put students on a fast track to residency here.
"This has led to a decline in the general skill level of migrants granted permanent residency, and fraudulent and frankly unethical behaviour from some agents, employers and education providers has led to students being exploited."
SOLD A FALSE DREAM
The changes follow a raft of horror stories of migrant work and student exploitation in recent years.
Each year, tens of thousands of Chinese and Indian families were sold a dream: they sent their children to study in New Zealand to study, with the hope of them gaining employment, and eventually setting up a permanent life at the bottom of the world.
While only 17 per cent of them would gain permanent residency, along the way many were exploited and taken advantage of by dodgy education providers and employers. In some cases, those running the educational institutes, which dolled out near-meaningless qualifications for a hefty sum, also owned businesses in the hospitality, horticulture, and retail industries.
Those who gained post-study visas were bonded to their employer, and an some cases forced to work long hours, for less than minimum wages, and live in poor conditions. Exploited workers did not want to blow the whistle on their employers for fear of losing their job, and their spot in New Zealand.
Groups including the Migrant Workers' Association and Unite Union had called on the Government to remove the provision that tied workers to employers, giving them the freedom to find a suitable job, and speak out against any exploitation or abuse.
Unite Union organiser Joe Carolan said the migrant worker sector had felt betrayed by the Government, which had made big promises to clean up the industry, and help those students who had been exploited and then deported, ahead of the election.
During the election the migrant population were used as "scapegoats" for Auckland's population issues - something you'd expect from Donald Trump, not left-wing Kiwi politicians, he said. And post-election a crackdown on dodgy education institutes and employers had left the Indian community feeling targeted.
Carolan also criticised the Government for not following through with its promise to help students whose supporting visa documents were forged by agents in India, leaving to be deported with no qualification.
The removal of the employer sponsorship requirement was a good step towards ending exploitation, he said.
Lees-Galloway said international education was a significant service export industry, and the Government was committed to ensuring it remained "an attractive and credible offering".
Immigration settings were a crucial component to achieve that aim, he said.
"We must protect our reputation by ensuring that the students who are coming here are motivated by a great education and a positive experience."
But some students, like University of Auckland food science student Violet Xu, said international students sacrificed a lot to come to New Zealand and restricting their work opportunities afterward was "unfair".
"It seems the Government is shutting us out. We're here to make this a better place. We're not criminals," she said earlier this month.
Universities New Zealand executive director Chris Whelan welcomed the changes, saying it might reduce the number of students coming to New Zealand, but it would improve their outcomes.
"Rather than forcing students into some very shonky work arrangements, they can focus on finding proper, high-quality employment," Whelan said.
The proposed changes provided a good incentive for people to gain degree-level study, meaning they would be more likely to find "meaningful jobs for themselves, but also jobs that are meaningful for New Zealand".
Whelan admitted this would likely mean slightly better business for universities, which offered about 80 per cent of degree-level qualifications, but the financial gains would be "on the margins".
"If there are people who are still aspiring to coming to New Zealand, this may not be as cheap or as easy, but it's sure as heck going to lead to better outcomes for them."
Immigration New Zealand granted 12,474 open post-study work visas last year, and declined 210.
A further 7,262 employer assisted post-study work visas were granted.
Require students completing non-degree level 7 or below qualifications to undertake at least two years of study in order to gain eligibility for post-study work rights
Require international students studying level 8 or 9 qualifications to be in an area specified in the Long Term Skills Shortage List in order for their partner to be eligible for an open work visa, and in turn the partner's dependent children to be eligible for fee-free compulsory schooling
The public will have the chance to have its say on the proposed changes, with consultation opening on Tuesday.
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