‘When will our businesses catch a break?’

One step forward, three steps back.

That effectively sums up the mood of Queenstown employers when considering changes made to the controversial accredited employer work visa (AEWV) scheme — announced and introduced on April 7 — which look likely to again jeopardise businesses’ ability to operate at full capacity this winter.

Changes to ANZSCO Level 4 and 5 roles — for example, kitchen hands, housekeepers, bar and wait staff — include requiring employers to engage with Work and Income before approval to bring migrant workers in will be granted, and reducing the maximum continuous stay for most of those roles from five to three years.

Those workers will also need to prove they have three years’ relevant experience for their visas to be approved.

One local HR specialist questions where local businesses will find migrant workers who already have that level of experience as a kitchen hand, noting ‘‘you’re asking for unskilled workers to be skilled’’.

Ironically, even those already in the country on the AEWV for the past couple of years may not be eligible for a new visa under the changes.

At present, the AEWV process has taken at least three months, but there are fears it may now stretch to five months, meaning those looking to recruit for this winter may well have already missed out.

‘‘I think the difficult thing is, we’d finally gotten to a point where we were just swimming,’’ the HR specialist, who doesn’t want to be named, says.

‘‘I think we all know, Queenstown is as busy as it ever has been, it’s just the thought of having to go back to where we were, where restaurants can’t open fully … are we going to have to start capping occupancy again, because we just don’t have the staff?’’

Queenstown Business Chamber of Commerce boss Sharon Fifield labels the changes ‘‘complete rubbish’’, ‘‘ridiculous’’ and questions if those who came up with the changes have ever run a business.

‘‘Businesses here, they just get it from all angles.

‘‘When can they catch a break and just get on with doing business?

‘‘It’s really frustrating.’’

New rules “exploitative”

Fifield says there’s been ‘‘lots of noise’’ from the Chamber’s members, concerned at the impacts on individual businesses, and the town’s economy.

She says in some large businesses in Queenstown, over half the workforce is on an AEWV, people who now face an uncertain future.

‘‘For a government that supposedly cares so much about migrant exploitation, this is actually quite exploitative of migrants — just changing
conditions on them overnight.

‘‘They’re really valuable to our workforce and our economy, but [the government’s] just kind of shifting the goalposts,’’ she says.

Fifield points to one example of an international worker who took up a job as a kitchen hand here and fell in love with the industry.

They have since personally paid to complete a cookery course and have upskilled to become a commis chef — of whom there is a huge national shortage — but under the new rules potentially has to leave New Zealand.

‘‘What incentive is there for any of these workers to upskill and develop when they could be cut?

‘‘It’s a ridiculous stroke-of-pen policy that actually has a hugely detrimental effect for our workforce and doesn’t recognise the makeup of our economy.

‘‘It just goes to show how quickly things can be changed when they want to.’’

She notes, too, as of last week there were about 100 people on Job Seeker support locally, and not all of them are able to work.

‘‘It’s just another example of this kind of broad-brush national policy that really doesn’t work for regions like ours.

‘‘They need regional settings.’’

Fifield says the Chamber’s already spoken to Southland MP Joseph Mooney and has requested Immigration Minister Erica Stanford visit Queenstown and speak to operators herself, hoping urgent fixes can be applied in time for this winter.

Neither Mooney nor Stanford were able to respond to Mountain Scene inquiries by deadline.

Given the plethora of questions business owners and operators have — and few answers at this stage — Fifield says the Chamber’s also organising a webinar where members can get some answers from an immigration specialist.

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