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Migrant Workers Deserve Better: AEWV Changes and NZ's Dirty Little Secret.

Updated: May 20

Recent changes to the Accredited Employer Work Visa (AEWV) are making life significantly worse for huge numbers of migrant workers in NZ, while doing nothing to combat rampant exploitation in the country. In this piece, Unite union explains the problems with the visa and argues for migrant workers to be treated as more than disposable batteries to boost profits for NZ employers and drag down wages for NZ workers - solidarity and unionisation being key.

Photo: Migrant rights advocate Anu Kaloti speaking to a rally on Queen Street in 2022. Photo: Matthew Scott:  Newsroom


The Accredited Employer Work Visa - Labour’s Magic Post-Covid Pill


The Accredited Employer Work Visa (AWEV) was introduced by the Labour government in July 2022 with the intended aim of allowing NZ businesses more access to skilled labour following labour shortages and low unemployment coming out of the Covid lockdowns. Immigration Minister of the then Labour government, Michael Wood, said the AWEV will “increase the available pool of labour to fill skilled work shortages” but emphasised that “ensuring that migrants are fairly treated” was important so that NZ could avoid the previous government’s “low cost labour model”. The AEWV would do this through “a requirement to pay at the median wage”. (1) Employers were required to go through a job check application to prove they had tried and failed to fill vacancies with NZ workers first, and also included an accreditation process to ensure that unsuitable employers were not given access to vulnerable migrant workers.


The AEWV simplified visa processes, and essentially combined 6 separate previous kinds of visa into one. If bringing in more workers to NZ was the sole measure of success, the AEWV has performed extremely well - by April 2024, over 119,000 migrant workers had gained the visa, with over 35,000 accredited employers taking advantage of the scheme. But the AEWV was plagued by problems from its inception, with its key checks and balances being watered down by Labour on several occasions after pressure from business groups, and was the focus of a damning independent report which identified widespread migrant exploitation resulting from the AEWV’s deficiencies.


Plagued with Problems from the Get-go.


Describing the new AEWV scheme as “Groundhog Day in Aotearoa’s political economy”, economic commentator Bernard Hickey called out some core problems in 2022. Hickey argued that successive governments of both the left and right had taken similar approaches in the past by “pulling the migration lever hard to juice growth in a low-inflationary way without building the infrastructure first… Aotearoa Inc hasn’t invested nearly enough in housing, water and transport infrastructure to cope with past population growth, let alone future growth.” (2)


But the AWEV didn’t last long in its original incantation - after sustained pressure from business groups such as Business NZ, The Restaurant Association of NZ, and Chambers of Commerce throughout the country, Labour quickly reversed or watered down several key worker protections built into the original legislation - ‘easing’ settings three times in five months. Key to these changes were massively expanding the ability of employers to bring in ‘low skilled’ category 4 and 5 migrants, and removing the requirement to pay these workers the median wage. Exemption lists of certain kinds of jobs were introduced, and to no-one’s surprise employers jumped at the opportunity and began to bring in record numbers of low skilled workers in sectors like hospitality, tourism and agriculture. The Restaurant Association said Labour “Responds to industry pressure”. (3) Wages in sectors like Hospitality which has been steadily rising as a result of lower unemployment, quickly plateaued in 2023, allowing employers to reap greater profits and keep future wage growth as low as possible - a key goal of business groups’ lobbying.


Another result of business influence on the Labour government at the time was the expansion of the Working Holidays Visa (WHV) scheme in 2023, which did not contain any wage thresholds or job check requirements, resulting in significant numbers (4) of young migrant workers entering the country and working in minimum wage jobs, further chilling wage growth in sectors such as Hospitality. One key difference between the WHV and the AEWV was that WHVs allowed workers to easily switch jobs, where the AEWV essentially tied migrants to one employer, with all the associated risks to workers.


“These workers have told me, straight up, that they are not prepared to ‘raise a fuss’ or even join a union because of the pressure from their employers. They are hugely at risk - if they lose their job, they can also lose their housing, savings and ability to remain in NZ as well - it’s an incredibly unbalanced power situation where the employers hold all the cards”.

This bonding of migrants to single employers was a key problem that led directly to the exploitation of large numbers of migrants by unscrupulous employers. As Green MP Ricardo Menéndez March identified, “Abolishing the requirement tying migrant workers to single employers was the single most meaningful change the government could make to address exploitation… When your whole ability to stay in the country depends on your employer, you're left vulnerable to exploitation: to be forced to work more hours than you should, to be paid less than you should. Those workers have few avenues to hold that employer to account and [the system] at the same time enables modern slavery practices." (5) In places with significant housing shortages, this effect has been compounded with workers often reliant on the employers for their housing as well. Otago/Southland Unite union organiser Simon Edmunds has experienced several examples of Queenstown migrant workers on the AEWV scheme pulling out of disputes with their employers for fear of the repercussions. “These workers have told me, straight up, that they are not prepared to ‘raise a fuss’ or even join a union because of the pressure from their employers. They are hugely at risk - if they lose their job, they can also lose their housing, savings and ability to remain in NZ as well - it’s an incredibly unbalanced power situation where the employers hold all the cards”.


"We have become the Dubai of the South Pacific where we enable substantial migrant exploitation.”

The third major problem that’s plagued the AEWV scheme from the get go has been the lack of effective checks on employers. Following sustained pressure from business groups to let in more workers, faster, Labour and Immigration New Zealand (INZ) watered down checks and balances to a point where the independent Bestwick Review of the AEWV in 2023 identified these changes as a major factor that led to the scheme’s failure to protect large numbers of migrants from exploitation. (6) More and more cases of extreme migrant exploitation of workers on the AEWV and RSE schemes began to surface from 2022 onwards, many hitting the headlines and leading commentators like Hickey to describe the problem as NZ’s “dirty little secret”, where "We have become the Dubai of the South Pacific where we enable substantial migrant exploitation.” (7)


Vanishing Pathways to Residency


A longstanding issue with NZ’s reliance of migrant workers has been the willingness of the country to bring in migrants for short periods of time to increase business profitability, but restrict migrants’ ability to become permanent residents of NZ. One obvious impact of migrant workers not having residency is their lack of voting rights  - we’ve now had hundreds of thousands of workers in NZ who are unable to vote for or against policies which directly affect them. 


In 2021, a special one-off residency pathway for migrant workers - RV21 - was introduced after sustained lobbying from Unite and other union and migrant support groups. Over 200,000 migrants applied for RV21 and over 100,000 gained residency as a result. (8) But both the Labour and new Coalition governments have been unwilling to expand this pathway, in fact recent changes to the AEWV have further restricted pathways to residence. 


"Migrants aren’t to blame for NZ immigration or workplace policies - they’re quite specifically the one group that can’t vote for these. We need to support them [migrants] and ensure that they have the same rights as NZ workers to build solidarity and undermine racism. Migrant workers and NZ workers shouldn’t be scrapping over a tiny slice of the pie - we should be fighting together for a bigger piece!"

Unite union believes that all migrant workers should be able to become residents should they want - “If they’re good enough to come to NZ and work in our businesses, they should be good enough to become residents and have the support and rights of other NZ workers” says Edmunds. “We shouldn’t treat migrant workers like disposable batteries - here to be used up and then discarded. Migrant workers are people just like us who deserve fair and reasonable treatment, and their rights respected. If you don’t provide support and long-term pathways for migrants, they risk just becoming a tool for NZ employers to use to drive down wages and conditions, and the loss of power for other NZ workers that can result leads to racism and division in the workplace. Migrants aren’t to blame for NZ immigration or workplace policies - they’re quite specifically the one group that can’t vote for these. We need to support them [migrants] and ensure that they have the same rights as NZ workers to build solidarity and undermine racism. Migrant workers and NZ workers shouldn’t be scrapping over a tiny slice of the pie - we should be fighting together for a bigger piece!” 


The Coalition Government's AEWV 2024 changes


The new Coalition government of National, ACT and New Zealand First has introduced some significant changes to the AEWV that will make life more difficult for migrant workers while doing little to combat exploitation. 


Immigration Minister Erica Stanford was quick to acknowledge that the AEWV was exploitative: “we had to make some changes now because we've got high migrant exploitation… The previous government made a series of decisions that were both irresponsible and unsustainable when they removed almost all checks and balances from the AEWV process…’’ She unveiled a list of changes to the AEWV which she claimed would “help protect against exploitation” (9


Key changes (10) include:

  • Level 4 and 5 migrant workers (lower skilled categories) must now produce proof of their English language ability at over IELTS lvl4 or 3 years' prior work experience in their industry or a Bachelor’s degree or above when applying for a AEWV. Crucially, these requirements will also affect migrants already here on a AEWV who wish to extend their stay (which was possible for up to five years).

  • Level 4 & 5 migrant workers have had their maximum length of stay removed from 5 years to three years.

  • Employers must advertise their roles for longer (21 days from 14) as part of the job-check process.

  • Positions must also be made available through Work and income for 21 days.

  • Employers being investigated for exploitation will have their accreditation suspended immediately.

  • Pathways to Residency for AEWV workers have been further reduced, with a requirement that workers must earn 1.5x the median wage to qualify, and specific exclusions of some jobs (bus and truck drivers) from pathways. 


Unite believes that it’s important to recognise that two of these changes are an improvement - notably the increase in the period roles need to be advertised, and the immediate suspension of exploitative employers. However, when the current government is making a specific target of public sector employees, with over 2,500 already having lost their jobs and Deputy PM David Seymour boasting of waiting to fire 15,000 (11) - it’s hard to see how these new rules can be actually enforced with less people doing that job than previously when they were already unable to enforce less stringent provisions.


‘‘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”

There’s also some really appalling staff here included in the new changes, as is immediately obvious to even the Queenstown Business Chamber of Commerce CEO Sharon Fifield, hardly a spokesperson for workers’ rights, ‘‘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”. (12)


Requiring migrants who might be working as hotel cleaners or front of house in hospitality, for example, to have a relevant Bachelors degree in this area, or three years work experience is farcical. These and the language requirements are particularly concerning for migrant workers already here on an AEWV, who had been assured by their employers that they would be able to extend their initial two year visas to five years, but who now won’t be able to apply because of these additional requirements. Compounding this problem, reducing the overall length of stay for level 4 and 5 AEWV holders means that huge numbers of migrants currently working in NZ are facing having to leave their jobs and the country years ahead of what they were expecting. It’s a massively unfair situation which is causing widespread apprehension and stress for AEWV workers currently in the country.


Labour’s Head in the Sand


Labour have been highly critical of these changes, while taking little to no responsibility for their original failures. Phil Twyford, Labour’s Spokesperson on Immigration stated that Labour “recognised changes to the scheme were needed, and they would fully support the key change required: decoupling the visa from single employers” despite not having brought in this exact change while actually in government and called for Stanford to take measures to “actually get the focus back on skilled migration.” despite having done the exact opposite while in power. Once again, Labour excels at being a lion in opposition but a mouse in government in regards to championing workers’ rights. In line with Labour leader Chris Hipkins’ denialism around why Labour lost the election, Twyford also denied that bringing in the AEWV was a mistake and said that he did not think the AEWV scheme needed to go back to the drawing board. (13


With neither the anti-worker parties of the current government - National, ACT and NZ First, nor the major party of the opposition - Labour able to offer any real support or legislative solutions for migrant workers, they will need to look elsewhere for advice and action.


Advice for Migrant Workers


The first step for any migrant workers currently on a AEWV should be to get in touch with their immigration adviser and find out exactly what the changes will mean for their visa and situation. They should be wary of advice from any non-expert - in NZ only licenced immigration advisors and lawyers can legally give advice about Visas. Unite union members can contact Anu Kaloti, a licenced immigration advisor for a discounted rate. 


We also recommend that migrants contact their local migrant support organisations. Anu is also the Spokesperson for the Migrant Workers Association of Aotearoa and this organisation has fought tirelessly for the rights of migrants here in NZ.


The most important action that migrant workers can take in their workplaces is to join a trade union to empower them in democratic processes and bargaining, protect their rights, and build bridges with their non-migrant workmates. Hospitality workers can join Unite here.


For the many AEWV holders who have decided not to previously bring up complaints or assert their rights when their employers are breaking the law, now is the time to make a stand. You are very likely to be facing leaving NZ much sooner than you had planned, with the promises made by your employers when you were recruited about decent wages, five year stays and pathways to residency all blowing away in the wind. So contact your local press and tell your stories, seek advice from your local Citizens’ Advice Bureau, and join your union to fight for fair treatment and your legal entitlements. We will stand in solidarity with you!


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