Visa extensions billed as helping employers were in fact needed to solve a staffing crisis at Immigration New Zealand, documents released under the Official Information Act (OIA) show.

Three weeks after the Feb 3 announcement of the government’s border reopening plan, officials advised then immigration minister Kris Faafoi that a shortfall of immigration officers of about 60 full-time equivalents (FTEs) would treble to 180 as a result.

At the time, INZ had 677 staff processing visas, down from a peak of more than 900 pre-covid. Officials warn of a staffing crisis at Immigration NZ (Image: Aide memoire to the Minister of Immigration, Feb 25).

Officials followed up a week later with a plan to drastically cut the number of officers processing the special one-off 2021 residence visas (RV21) and to automatically extend thousands of onshore visas to reduce demand for renewals.

The briefing, titled "Options to increase visa processing capacity” also analysed the impacts of bringing forward the final phase of reopening the border, then scheduled for October, which officials warned could lead to extended waiting times for visitor visas and less rigorous checking of student visas.

RV21 slowdown

Officials advised minister Faafoi that extending the timeline to process RV21 applications from 12 months to 18, combined with some productivity savings, would free up about 110 full-time equivalent employees (FTEs) from the 210 currently allocated to the task.

Seventy FTEs could also be saved by issuing special directions to effectively extend the visas for about 20,000 migrants already onshore.

This included issuing a two-year visa with open work rights (ie not assigned to a particular occupation or employer) to onshore Essential Skills, Post-study Work and Partner of a New Zealander work visas expiring before Dec 31.

Surging applications

Officials were worried there would be a surge in applications for renewals of Essential Skills visas by people concerned they might not qualify for the new Accredited Employer Work Visa which was launched in July.

Officials advised that for the plan to work the visas should be issued with open work rights to make them more attractive than what could be obtained by renewal.

The government announced the visa extensions in May as part of its immigration rebalance, billing them as something to ease the pressure of the changes on employers.

“We’re also announcing today that around 20,000 visa holders with visas expiring before 2023 are being granted either a six-month extension or a new two-year visa with open work conditions, so they and their employers won’t be affected by this changes [sic] and we can keep the skills we need within the country,” said Faafoi in a press release at the time.

The government also announced the border would fully reopen from 11.59 pm on July 31 (effectively Aug 1).

The slowdown of RV21 processing was never formally announced but was confirmed in April in response to a question from National MP Erica Stanford.

Stanford immediately followed up with an OIA request which resulted in the release of the documents obtained by BusinessDesk.

'Eyeopener'

Stanford told BusinessDesk that the documents were a stunning eyeopener into the panic that must have been going on at INZ in response to the government’s decision to speed up the border reopening.

“This is sort of a peek in the back room, if you like, as to the panic that was going on and the rearranging of all of the staff to try and accommodate opening up the border more quickly.

“As I think you can see from this, they have had to make some pretty drastic changes and expectations around the processing of RV21 in order to make this work.”

She said everyone in the industry also knew the real reason government extended the Essential Skills visas was to free up resources. The briefing paper confirms that what the government said was just “spin”.

“The upshot though is that employers actually have not been happy with this at all because the employees that they had, have now gone ‘Yipee! I'm on an open work visa. I don't even have to work in this sector anymore’.”

She said she had recently spoken to a construction business that had just lost several carpenters that were going to leave the industry altogether.

“They came to New Zealand to work because it was a skills shortage and couldn't be filled by a New Zealander, for example carpenter or driver, and now the government has handed them a free ticket.”

She said it didn’t make sense when the government was insisting nurses had to wait two years before they obtained residence, instead of granting them residence on arrival.

The government refused to release to her a cabinet paper on the impacts of bringing forward the final phase of the border reopening, on the grounds it would soon be made publicly available.

Current immigration minister Michael Wood has been approached for comment.