The aged care industry has taken exception to recent immigration policies that make it harder for migrants to gain work in New Zealand. JUDE BARBACK looks critically at the immigration debate in the context of aged care.

The Government seems to contradict itself when it comes to our aged care workforce. One minute (2014) it is supporting the migrant workforce, getting behind initiatives like the publication of booklets Are you employing migrant workers in aged care?. The next (October 2016), it is making it harder for rest homes to recruit migrant registered nurses by pushing up the number of points required to gain residency under the Skilled Migrant Category (SMC) and putting more stringent requirements for English language in place.

Why do we need migrant workers in aged care?

The New Zealand Aged Care Association (NZACA) is strongly opposing the points increase. In a recent opinion piece, chief executive Simon Wallace points out that almost half of the registered nurses recruited under the SMC in recent years wouldn’t meet the new 160 point threshold, previously set at 140 points.

“It’s disappointing the Government went ahead in the face of official advice showing registered nurses in the aged care sector would be amongst the most affected – at a time when it’s widely accepted demand for aged residential care services is growing and will continue to do so.”

Wallace has accused the Government of tightening immigration rules for “political point-scoring” with the General Election looming.

Managing Director of Radius Care, Brien Cree also takes issue with immigration policies that favour wealthy migrants instead of workers.

“People who migrate here with their fortune already made may have plenty of cash to spend and invest, but they don’t have a big desire to contribute to the workforce, particularly not in the areas where we need labour the most, such as in aged care.”

Are migrants taking jobs from New Zealanders?

Many counter that we should be employing more young New Zealanders instead of immigrants. Winston Peters has never been shy of verbalising some iteration of this argument. The Salvation Army’s What Next? report claims too many work visas are being granted in aged care (among other industries) and recommends tightening immigration rules further still so that the jobs can go to young New Zealanders.

However, experts say the argument that migrants are taking jobs from New Zealanders doesn’t stack up.

“As long as there is demand for goods and services, there will be firms looking to meet that demand, and they will need workers to do it,” Jason Krupp told the Herald this week. Krupp is author of New Zealand Initiative report, The New New Zealanders – Why Migrants Make Good Kiwis. The study analysed available data on migration, and concluded that the country benefits from migration, or at the very least was not worse off.

“There is no evidence that immigrants are taking New Zealanders’ jobs,” agrees Massey University sociologist Paul Spoonley.

The NZACA claims the sector is committed to employing New Zealanders with the “right attitude”.  It is working with the Ministry of Social Development and Work and Income New Zealand to get more young Kiwis in employment.

“Our challenge is that we can’t recruit enough youngsters who are available and willing to learn,” says Wallace.

Brien Cree agrees.

“The reality is that we don’t have New Zealanders lining up to take the jobs that are available, we just end up with vacancies and major gaps that need filling. Caring for the elderly requires a special disposition, the job can’t just be handed to anyone, and certainly not everyone is cut out for this work.”

Lee Keegan agrees. Keegan is human resources manager at St Andrews Village in Glen Innes, Auckland and says they do try and employ Kiwi workers where possible, but often they do not bring the same level of attitude, knowledge or experience as migrant workers.

She points out that residents are typically very frail with multiple co-morbidities by the time they are admitted to residential aged care and consequently many die within six months of admission. Keegan says care workers need to be equipped for the realities of providing such a high level of care.

In spite of the demands of the job, aged care workers are still not officially viewed as skilled workers. Keegan is frustrated by this. She has lobbied hard alongside the NZACA to have Level 3 qualifications for aged care recognised by Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations (ANZSCO). They are eagerly awaiting the results of their submission.

Time and costs associated with immigration

There are 44 staff on work visas at St Andrews – around a quarter. This equates to two or three work visas to process each month. Keegan says it is difficult to quantify the costs associated with processing immigration visas. Most of the costs lie in the many hours spent by senior staff on filling in the required documentation and satisfying Skills Match Report requirements that they’ve tried to find New Zealand workers through advertising with WINZ. Then there are the costs associated with filling the role with temporary agency staff while a decision is made.

The process used to take four to six weeks – a timeframe which Keegan thinks is acceptable – but it has gradually lengthened to take up to 12 weeks, and in some cases longer.

It recently took St Andrews 15 weeks to employ a new staff member. Although the person in question held a Level 7 health management qualification, the delays in getting his work visa sorted out took an inordinate amount of time.

In another example, a visa for a clinical assistant was rejected. St Andrews appealed the decision several times until it was finally overturned when it reached Ministerial appeal. The process took five months, in which time the position had to be filled with agency staff, and the employee in question was left in limbo.

What about the migrant worker?

Let’s not forget the migrant worker in all this. Research shows the aged care industry is not always that appealing for workers. It is no secret, thanks to the work of Dr Judy McGregor and subsequent research like Dr Katherine Ravenswood’s 2014 Aged Care Workforce Survey, that the working conditions for aged care workers in New Zealand could be better. The fight for equal pay, which is really a fight for better pay – along with revelations over the uncertainty of hours, high workloads and a lack of support – all hint at a workforce that is not entirely happy.

It would seem migrant workers are prepared to put up with more than New Zealanders are – but why?

For starters, the working conditions and pay are often better than in their home countries. In many cases, they can earn more here. Last year The Manila Times reported that a Filipino caregiver needs only to work around five weeks in New Zealand to earn the equivalent of his annual salary in the Philippines.

Also, many Indian and Filipino workers see aged care as a stepping stone to getting registered as a nurse in New Zealand.

And many value the quality of life here. Among them is Mark Alviola from the Philippines, who works as the clinical manager at Bupa’s David Lange Care Home in Auckland.

“I love the thought that you feel safe all the time. If you are wanting a more balanced lifestyle, New Zealand’s got the best recipe for that.”

Despite this, Esther Ngocha-Chaderopa’s research reveals that the wellbeing of migrant workers is often affected by the stress of dealing with visa requirements, low pay, lack of training and support, and worryingly, discrimination and racism.

Skilled Migrant Business Advisor Lisa Burdes says employers have an obligation to help new migrants settle into work and life in New Zealand.

“It’s important to put time and resources into enabling your new migrant employees to find their bearings and be able to concentrate on the ‘nuts and bolts’ of setting up their new life.”

Things like helping them enrol with a doctor, open up bank accounts, enrol children in schools, and orientate themselves in their new local community are all important at the outset of employment.

“Set up a buddy system, provide a welcome kit with important contact details and local information, help with transport, and ensure that they are aware of the unique New Zealand road rules and driving conditions,” says Burdes.

She emphasises the importance of encouraging social interaction with Kiwi workers and preparing migrant workers for the possibility of challenging behaviour from older residents.

The arguments for employing migrant workers in aged care are sound. Migrant workers help fill a labour shortage that New Zealanders alone can’t – or won’t – fill. However, the aged care industry needs to be sure that it is looking after its diverse workforce. Migrant workers need to feel supported and valued – not merely grateful for a job.

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