Auckland, November 20, 2019
Recent political posturing over partnership visas and arranged marriages is a troubling distraction that derails the real, necessary debates we should be having over the many changes to immigration policy.
Let’s take the recent changes aimed at limiting the ability of low-income migrant spouses to work here as an example.
While these changes are aimed at ensuring that those on partnership visas don’t make it harder for local people to find low-paid work, the unfortunate reality is that these changes may end up as an own goal in the long term.
Balancing the needs of a host community with the needs of migrants is not always easy. Certainly there is evidence from MBIE that in New Zealand’s horticultural regions the employment of temporary migrant spouses is having a negative effect of the new hires of beneficiaries and youth.
But the same reports show that in other places and industries temporary migration has a positive effects of the employment of New Zealanders.
What we can say is when it comes to building healthy resilient communities, the way a community treats migrants and the way migrants invest in their host communities are both really important.
Case studies in rural Queensland have found that when workers did not feel attached to a community they often underinvested in the long-term health of the community.
These studies also the community didn’t invest in the migrant to ensure attachment with the overall effect leading to a downward spiral in community connectedness.
The migrant and the community in effect became two groups of “consumers,” taking from each other just what they wanted. The long term result was that a small town became an even less attractive place to be.
So how does a community build attachment to a place. It often means ensuring migrants are seen as part of a wider family and community.
For us, looking at the issue of spousal employment it means doing everything you can to support spouses to be attached to a wider community.
The Norwegian example
Often this means finding meaningful work. OECD evidence from Norway for example shows that migrants with an employed partner are more likely to stay than those with an inactive partner.
For male migrants “the retention rate was almost twice as high when their spouse was working.” A similar effect was found in the Netherlands when looking at highly-skilled migrants. We need to remember that even if the principal applicant is highly skilled, their spouse may not be. A labour market test may compound the informal barriers that the partner faces.
Overall, building stronger communities needs more than just ensuring a local supply of workers. It means seeing these workers as part of a wider family and when it comes to migration policy focusing more on long-term outcomes than short term expediency.
Ensuring a community is strong requires that all kinds of people to put down roots, claim a place as their own and work together to build a healthy community. The welcome we offer to new members is the first opportunity to grow such a community.
Julian Wood is a Researcher at Maxim Institute based in Auckland.