Last year New Zealand met Ed Budomo, a senior healthcare assistant from the Philippines who faces having to leave New Zealand in less than two years, despite having lived here and worked at Auckland’s St Andrew’s Village for 13 years.

Owing to a change in immigration laws in 2017, Ed and around 6000 other migrant aged care workers will be forced to leave their homes and jobs in New Zealand, leaving the residential aged care workforce with a gaping hole. New Zealand’s rest homes rely heavily on migrant workers, and that reliance is only going to increase as demand for residential aged care is expected to rise by as much as 40 per cent over the next 10 years.

The new immigration settings introduced a one-year stand-down period for migrant workers after three years working in New Zealand, before they are allowed to apply for a new visa. This means workers like Ed, despite having built a life here, must return to their country of origin.

A later revision of the immigration policy changed some of the pay settings determining which migrant workers are affected by the stand-down period. However, this revision does not solve the problem for healthcare assistants like Ed.

The rules stipulate that any migrant classified by the skills classification system ANZSCO (Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations) as being Level 4 or over is still subject to the stand-down period. ANZSCO Level 4 category jobs are classed as “unskilled”. The healthcare assistant role is classified as Level 4. Rest home operators strongly argue that the role is clearly not unskilled and that the ANZSCO classification system needs to be changed to reflect this, classifying healthcare assistants as Level 3. A change to Level 3 would mean many healthcare assistants on migrant work visas would be exempt from the stand-down period.

However, making changes to ANZSCO has transpired to be an arduous process owing to the fact that ANZSCO is co-owned by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) and New Zealand Statistics (NZ Stats).

Initially, the New Zealand Government said it would review the ANZSCO system as the second phase to the immigration law changes, and it indicated this review would be completed by the end of 2017.

However, on 14 August 2018 the ABS announced that they “have decided not to commit to undertaking a review of ANZSCO at this stage”. The ABS stated that while a review is “desirable” it would be too “labour and resource intensive”. It says it will reconsider its position after the 2021 Australian Census.

In light of the lack of cooperation from the Australians, Stats NZ is pursuing an amendment to the classification of healthcare assistants, which would help resolve the looming situation for migrant workers.

Becky Collett, Stats NZ’s Senior Manager of Data Standards and Design says Stats NZ has been liaising with the aged care sector to understand how an ANZSCO amendment might help affected migrant workers.

“As Stats NZ is aware of a number of issues with the use of the classification due to its age, we have started putting together an options paper to explore whether we can mitigate any of the issues with other solutions in the absence of a full review,” says Collett.

One of the options includes making small amendments to a small number of categories, such as the healthcare assistant category, in order to reduce the issues emerging for people in these roles.

However, the options paper is still a work in progress and no decisions have been made yet. It is unlikely any action will be made in the next month or two, says Collett.

Collett confirms that the Minister of Immigration would not be involved in sign-off on changes to the classification itself, but may make decisions on how ANZSCO is used for immigration purposes.

Residential aged care providers say it is imperative that the changes are made to ANZSCO.

Stephanie Leith from Iona Enliven Care says her facility is among those providers who employ a large number of migrant workers and will be severely affected by the immigration settings if they are forced to leave.

“If we didn’t have migrant nurses we wouldn’t have a service. We’re sick of the churn. We’re sick of recruiting,” she said at the New Zealand Aged Care Association (NZACA) conference in Auckland this week.

St Andrew’s Village manager Andrew Joyce says his facility also employs a large number of migrant workers. He fears for the sector if action isn’t taken soon.

“In about 18 months we are faced with chucking out 6000 healthcare workers,” he told NZACA conference delegates.

Joyce says making the ANZSCO amendment wouldn’t have a detrimental effect on immigration.

“It makes not a blind bit of difference to the immigration numbers because these people are already here.”

NZACA chief executive Simon Wallace says the sector needs urgent action from the Government to tackle the immigration settings which are detrimentally affecting residential aged care facilities.

In addition to the problem facing migrant caregivers, Wallace says the aged care sector is also facing a “dire shortage” of nurses, partly due to the fact that aged care nurses are no longer on the migrant long-term skills shortage list, making aged care nursing an unattractive role for migrant nurses.

“This problem with nurses could be solved overnight by the Government. They could put nurses on the long-term skills shortage list tomorrow,” he says.

“Even as a stop-gap measure that would solve the crisis that we have at the moment while we work out some longer term solutions.”

And so the large number of migrant healthcare assistants and nurses, upon whom New Zealand relies on so heavily to look after its elderly, must continue to wait for government action that will not only assure their future, but that of the residential aged care industry.

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