Grant Coombes doesn’t usually have trouble keeping staff. He pays well, provides decent accommodation, and his North Waikato dairy farm is within easy reach of Hamilton. But there wasn’t much he could do when his herd manager left for Canada in June.

Originally from the Philippines, the manager, Syrell, was in New Zealand on an essential skills visa, which was set to expire. Coombes says renewing the visa wasn’t the problem -he’d renewed one for another employee just months before. The difficulty was that Syrell, who earned $70,000 a year working 45 hours per week, didn’t just want a job. He wanted a future.

“It’s about a pathway to residency for these guys and there’s just no clear pathway at the moment,” Coombes says.

Which is a shame because the man’s skills are in huge demand in New Zealand.

“He really was the kind of guy we want to keep … a very good farmer, very clever, he had a background as an engineer with welding skills, if there was a broken down piece of machinery he could fix it. He could grab a grinder, cut the steel, weld it in place and make it stick” says Coombes.

Like Syrell, many of New Zealand’s farm workers are on essential skills visas, a temporary visa issued for up to three years.

To make a permanent life in this country, most expect to apply though the points system for a residence visa. With residence comes the ability to buy a home, to study or send dependent children to tertiary education without paying international fees, and to go abroad and return easily. But most importantly, residence confers certainty: after two years, residence visa holders can typically apply for permanent residence.

But this mainstay route to residence, through points, is now closed indefinitely. And that closure is beginning to have some alarming effects.

Half a world away, Ron Maynard owns a dairy farm in eastern Canada, on Prince Edward Island. Recently, his online advertisement for two general farm workers generated applications from eight overseas applicants.

“I was very surprised to find that half of them were from New Zealand,” he says. “Three were from guys currently working on New Zealand dairy farms, and a fourth arrived in Canada from New Zealand early this year.

“We got very few responses from Canada,” he says. “We got a few from places like the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, but these people from New Zealand have experience working on a modern dairy farm, and that makes them different.”

Maynard is offering an hourly rate between C$15 and C$16 per hour ($16.80-$17.92 per hour). And farmers, in both Canada and New Zealand, typically offer foreign workers accommodation on or close to the farm.

There are no official figures to show how many New Zealand farm workers are upping stakes and departing the country for Canada – or for anywhere else, for that matter.

But an anecdotal picture is taking shape. New Zealand-based foreign workers are beginning to leave, and in Canada, a rising number of New Zealand-based workers are applying for and arriving to take up work. The impetus appears to be the two countries’ contrasting routes to residence.

Andrew Hoggard, national president of Federated Farmers and a Manawatū dairy farmer, says his own farm manager, originally from India and in New Zealand on a temporary visa, is considering making an application to work in Canada.

“You can’t blame people. They want certainty. And New Zealand just isn’t offering that right now,” Hoggard says.

In July, Federated Farmers met Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and stressed that while border exemptions to bring more people to New Zealand are welcome (a few hundred dairy workers have been approved in recent months) the priority must be on keeping the tens of thousands of temporary visa holders who are already working here.

“That was nearly three months ago at Fieldays,” Hoggard says. “Nothing has changed.”

In the meantime, New Zealand’s unemployment rate has dropped to just 4 per cent and businesses across the country are describing acute labour shortages.

Canada is determined to address similar shortages through expansive immigration targets, says Warren Green, a recruitment and immigration consultant based in western Canada.

“In Canada right now, you come in on a work visa and after two years you can apply for permanent residence. Under the special programmes they’ve announced, some can apply sooner. It’s just a real easy route, especially if you’re in agriculture because all food production is deemed essential, so these workers get priority in the system,” Green says.

In the last month, he says, he’s had eight enquiries from people working in New Zealand but hoping to move to Canada. “Now for me, that’s unheard of. And what’s surprising is not just that I’m getting a lot of interest. What’s really surprising is that these are qualified people, the last guy was a diesel mechanic okay, and English is his first language.”

Warren speculates that Canada’s pull factors and New Zealand push factors, caused by divergent immigration policies, are driving the trend.

Indeed, New Zealand’s main route to residency for work visa holders is currently and indefinitely suspended.

For most dairy workers, the points system is their only path to residency (more options are available to those migrant workers who earn more than twice the median wage). In ordinary times, through factors like job qualifications and English proficiency, they must hope to achieve the requisite 160 points. Applicants who meet this threshold then make what’s called an “expression of interest” (EOI): an online process run by Immigration New Zealand to signal that they’d like to apply for residence.

The group of hopeful people who have made such expressions of interest is called “the pool”, and before March 2020, Immigration officials invited qualified applicants in the pool to formally apply for residence.

When the Covid-19 pandemic began, that system was suspended. Since then, expressions of interest can still be entered into the pool, but no residency applications have been invited from those within it.

When the process was suspended 18 months ago, the pool contained fewer than 500 EOIs. Immigration New Zealand figures show that, as of mid-August, there are now over 13,000 EOIs. Of those, 11,589 are from applicants already living and working in New Zealand.

The spanner in the works is not Covid-19, but rather the Government’s immigration “reset”, its desire to reform the immigration system and reduce the number of low-skilled migrants – but as yet, no plan for doing so. Meanwhile, a log jam of applicants is building in the current system.

Katy Armstrong is a Waikato-based immigration adviser. “The EOI pool is just part of the problem. But yes, it’s a very big problem,” she says.

“They call it ‘the pool’ and it’s literally like a big pool growing some kind of awful algae. It’s a monstrous thing. The cases in there are just swilling around going nowhere. Nobody has been pulled out since March of last year, not one.”

Separately, Armstrong says, those who were pulled from the pool before Covid, and invited to lodge full applications for residence, are also still waiting.

“Those people had up to December 2020 to file their full applications, and Immigration New Zealand is still allocating cases from that group from November 2019 [to case workers],” she says. “So there’s a whole year of those full skilled migrant [residence] applications just sitting in branches in Auckland.”

Canadian immigration policy could hardly be more different. This year the country has a record target for permanent residence visa approvals of 401,000 people. Temporary work visa holders can apply after two years in the country.

In April, to help meet such a high target, the country offered residence to temporary workers who’d been working in “essential occupations” for more than a year. On the long list of essential occupations are general farm workers, nursery and greenhouse workers, and harvesting labourers.

“There’s a good grapevine amongst migrants for this kind of thing,” Green says. “Canada, New Zealand, Australia, they’re pretty interchangeable for a lot of these people. I think you’ll find that migrants are just figuring out the quickest route to making a better life.”

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