Many rest homes rely heavily on migrant workers but Government’s new immigration policies are trying to encourage providers to employ more New Zealanders as caregivers. The problem is, Kiwis are not lining up for the jobs. JUDE BARBACK reports.

“You’re dreaming if you think you can get a New Zealander to do the job,” says Shona Rishworth, manager of Ascot House Retirement Home in Devonport. “We typically advertise on TradeMe. Of 60 applicants, two will be Kiwi and they won’t even show up for the interview.”

Radius Care Managing Director Brien Cree agrees.

“The reality is that we don’t have New Zealanders lining up to take the jobs that are available, we just end up with vacancies and major gaps that need filling. Caring for the elderly requires a special disposition, the job can’t just be handed to anyone, and certainly not everyone is cut out for this work.”

New Zealand Aged Care Association (NZACA) chief executive Simon Wallace says although providers are keen to employ young New Zealanders, the experience is that they are generally not attracted to the work and not retained once recruited.

“Employers put significant efforts and rigorous process into recruiting the best caregivers, and always with a preference for New Zealanders,” says Wallace. “But they struggle to recruit Kiwis as caregivers for a range of reasons. Once employers have exhausted the New Zealand workforce pool, they must look to migrant workers to provide the care required; they have no other option.”

As a result, currently approximately a third of the aged care workforce is on some form of work or residence visa.

And the need for more caregivers is expected to increase due to the demands of a rapidly ageing population. The NZACA states that migrant workers are needed to fill the imminent caregiver shortage.

Wallace says many migrant workers are expertly suited to the work, with nursing qualifications and experience in their country of origin, but not able to work as nurses in New Zealand until they’ve met the necessary registration requirements.

However, as caregiving does not meet the required skill levels for a migrant to apply to work on a Skilled Migrant visa, nor is it recognised as an ANZSCO Essential Skills in Demand (ESID), ruling out an ESID visa, they must apply for an Essential Skills visa – which must be renewed yearly and with no transition path to a permanent visa.

The Government’s “Kiwis first” approach to immigration began in October last year when it pushed up the number of points required to gain residency under the Skilled Migrant Category and put more stringent requirements for English language proficiency in place. And now it is proposing that migrant workers earning less than $49,000 only be allowed to stay in New Zealand for three years. They would then have to go through a 12-month stand-down period, before reapplying.

“Now with the proposed changes, setting a maximum three years’ duration for Essential Skills visa holders, these workers will be sent back to their country for a stand-down period,” says Wallace.

“This will disrupt continuity of care, causing undue stress for vulnerable older people who need the stability and security of trusted relationships with their caregivers and creating additional recruitment costs for employers.”

Wallace says the proposed immigration changes will seriously affect valuable labour force, disrupting continuity of care, creating higher churn and cost for employers and hindering training and upskilling.

The Government’s announcement on the immigration changes flew somewhat under the radar of the pay equity settlement announcement, made just the day before. Many providers believe the policies appear too much in alignment for the timing to be coincidental.

By raising wages through the pay equity agreement, the caregiver role is likely to become more attractive to New Zealand workers.

Although Wallace acknowledges this, he says there is still a need for migrant workers within the caregiver workforce.

“Whilst the recent pay equity settlement will go some way to helping attract more Kiwis into aged care by lifting wages, immigration will still be essential in addressing gaps.”

Wallace describes both the Government’s proposed changes and the Labour Party’s immigration policy are “kneejerk politics that ignore the longer-term needs of aged care”.

“We are keen to work with current and future governments to get more New Zealanders into employment, but right now immigration is being used as a political football without consideration for future needs of aged care.”

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