By Paul Melville, Federated Farmers principal advisor water & environment strategy
In 2020 New Zealand shut its border to non-citizens due to an unfolding global pandemic. At the time it was very much considered a short-term response while we waited for the COVID-19 virus to be brought under control overseas. Few people expected the closure to last, in various forms, for almost two years.
The closure of the border was never about immigration. It was a health response to a health crisis, and rightly so.
But now, two-and-a-half years later, we find the decades-old argument we’ve had as a nation about the benefits or otherwise of immigration has blown up in our face. Businesses everywhere are gasping to hang on without qualified, skilled or even just willing staff.
New Zealanders are now acutely aware of our decades’ long dependence on imported people. We need to face the reality of where all kinds of workers come from.
Immigration Minister Michael Wood has criticised New Zealand immigration as having “a bit of an exploitist character” and businesses who hire immigrants as “relying on a low-cost labour model”.
In my view nothing is further from the truth.
I have visited farms up and down New Zealand where farm staff are from places like the Philippines, India, Argentina and the United Kingdom.
I always take the time to talk and ask the staff if they enjoy working on the farm. The responses are universally positive and tend to emphasise the great opportunity to work outdoors, have their own house, visit tourist attractions in weekends and learn a new way to farm.
I am also always left with a positive impression in the way that overseas workers are changing farming culture in New Zealand. The days of Fred Dagg and the stoic Kiwi farmer are being replaced with a new cosmopolitan farming culture.
International families are also welcomed into our rural communities; kids to keep our country schools running, volunteers in social clubs and churches, and partners who often work in industries like healthcare that are also desperately short of staff.
There really is a chasm between the central Wellington view of an exploitive labour model and the real-life positive relationships that occur on the ground.
But this change is not unique to farming; farmers are simply one of many industries that have experienced a demographic shift in New Zealand over the last few decades. It’s one that I think has its roots over six decades ago.
Up until about 1960 Kiwi families averaged over 4 children each. For every person who turned 65, there were two people turning 18. It was always easy to find people entering adulthood and ready to take on work.
A rapid cultural change occurred across the western world in the 1960s. The decade that gave us the Beatles, hippies and free love also saw the advent of modern family planning. By the mid-1970s Kiwi families were shrinking and were closer to an average of 2 children each.
This massive change wasn’t felt right away but the last of the ‘baby boomers’ will soon be retiring.
A quick read over StatsNZ population data shows a revealing but under-reported stat. In each of the last three years, according to StatsNZ, fewer Kiwis have turned 18 than have turned 60 in New Zealand. The total number of people between the age of 18 and 64 has now fallen for two years in row.
This is a dramatic shift; as recently as 1991 we had double as many 18 year olds as 60 year olds.
I think this is a really big deal: for the first time in our modern history we have a working age population that is shrinking. It is no wonder that businesses are finding it harder and harder to find staff.
In rural communities it is even more acute due to the tendency towards urbanisation.
So, far from being a result of a ‘race to the bottom’ or having an ‘exploitist character,’ businesses are simply suffering a demographic crunch that is 60 years in the making.
And this could be about to get worse. Kiwis have always been explorers. Every year tens of thousands leave to work abroad. Most come back, but many never will.
With an open border we may be about to see a large exit.
There are strong arguments for the Government to change its mindset when it comes to business and immigration.
We are in a global competition for talent. One of the major barriers to growth over the next decade will be our ability to retain and attract talent. Our immigration policies must reflect this.
Businesses in every sector are short of workers with many operating reduced hours. Farmers too are reducing stock numbers because they simply can’t run a farm without staff.
If we want to avoid a recession, we need to avoid unnecessary business closures. We need an open approach to new migrants.