Fruit-pickers, wages, and immigration

I’m not one of those who thinks wage and salary earners as a whole have had some sort of raw deal.  From time to time I’ve run this chart

lci wages vs gdp

suggesting that over the last 15+ years, wage increases in New Zealand (it is different in some other countries)  have outstripped that rate of growth in what I (loosely) term the earnings capacity of the economy: nominal GDP per hour worked, a variable that incorporates productivity growth and gains in the terns of trade.

To the extent there is some sort of “raw deal”, it is one the public has put up with: voting for politicians who, in office, do nothing about removing th roadblocks in the way of fixing our poor rate of productivity growth.  Fix that and we’d be considerably better off.  But across the economy we can’t consistently pay ourselves what hasn’t been earned.

But if wages growth across the economy has been, if anything, surprisingly high given the lack of productivity growth (I say “surprisingly”, but there are decent explanations as to why it has happened), there are still some wages puzzles.

One of them perhaps only puzzles public sector economist types who’ve never themselves had to make a payroll or face a market test for their services.

The Reserve Bank has long run a regular programme of business visits.  I always enjoyed participating (especially in visits well away from Auckland and Wellington) and often came away from the visits with a heightened admiration for the people who have built and maintained businesses, through good and bad economic times.    But there was one question that I never really got a satisfactory answer to.  In periods when the economy was doing well (for example the early 2000s) we would regularly hear from firms we talked to that it was really hard to get decent staff.   We’d nod understandingly, jot that down in our notebooks, and then ask “so what is happening to wage inflation?’ and “so are you increasing the wages you are willing to offer to get people”.  And often there was a look of almost incomprehension (perhaps it was really disdain for Wellington economists), and only rarely would anyone suggest that, indeed, it was really hard to get the right staff, and that they were paying over the odds to get people.  For some reason, a conversation on this issue at a firm in Timaru, probably in 2002, sticks in my memory.

There are strands to a possible good story.  Increase wages materially for new arrivals and before long you’ll have to increase them for everyone.  It is easy to raise wages and hard to cut them (if labour market or business conditions reverse).    Simply bidding more might attract a class of worker more likely to move on quickly if someone else offered a little bit more.  And so on.  So I get that there are reasons why wages move somewhat sluggishly (relative to, say, prices for oil or other commodities).  But I was always surprised at how weak a link managers/owners of private businesses appeared to draw between difficulty hiring and (what an economist would think of as) putative changes in the market-clearing price for such labour.

Which is all by way of introduction to a Stuff story I noticed yesterday about an industry having difficulty getting staff.   I’ve written previously about bus companies and bus drivers, and the bizarre situation in Wellington where the contracted companies get away with endless cancellations (with apparently minimal penalties) because they choose not to pay what it would take to employ the necessary number of drivers.  One might grant that that is a difficult situation –  a government-controlled “market”, in which both fares, operators, and service frequency are all supposed to be simultaneously controlled.

But yesterday’s article was about jobs in a fully private sector industry, with lots of individual employers, and with a significant export orientation: fruit-picking, including “grapes, apples, and kiwifruit”.  The article is quite a substantial piece, including a couple of quotes talking of a “dire” situation finding staff, and repeatedly talk of severe labour shortages.  And, remarkably, not one mention of wage rates.   It must not have occurred to the journalist to ask, let alone to the various employers (and employers’ representatives) to mention it.    Even though, when there is a “shortage” of tomatoes, tomato prices rise –  so that actual quantitity demanded at the going price is roughly equal to the actual quantity supplied.  At present, there is a “shortage” of avocadoes –  it gets a line perhaps somewhere in a newspaper, but prices adjust and so do (potential) consumers.

But not, it seems, in the fruit-picking industry.

The industry seems to think this is a problem for the government (admittedly, this is an approach fostered by successive governments, who also seem to think it is a “problem”, rather than (say) an opportunity for individuals who could capture the premium prices growers might otherwise pay to ensure their fruit was picked).  The article includes a quote from the head of something called the “Central Otago Labour Market Governance Group”, a title that sounds as if it could have been derived from some centrally-planned eastern European economy in the 1950s.

Perhaps there really is some movement in market rates for fruitpicking and the journalist just forgot to tell us. But if so, you’d have thought the industry representatives would have been keen to get the message across –  apart from anything else, it would be free advertising to people in those districts with a bit of time on their hands that there was (unexpectedly good) money to be had.

But again I’m left with a bit of a puzzle –  and perhaps it is only one to city-based macroeconomists – as to why a competitive bidding process isn’t at play.  One can understand the Wellington bus companies not raising wages (temporarily or permanently): they don’t have to, the passengers (mostly) bear the consequences, and entry to the business (Wellington bus routes) is restricted.  But for an individual grower (apples, grapes, kiwifruit or whatever), the situation is surely a lot different.  If there is a incipient shortage of pickers for the whole industry, that doesn’t mean your orchard has to miss out.  Offer better wage rates and presumably people will choose your orchard over another one down the street (on the other hand, choose not to compete and you risk fruit rotting on the tree/vine).  Of course, that invites the other orchards to increase their rates too, but that is how markets work.  And yet, if this Stuff story is to be believed, it doesn’t seem to be happening.  And that is even though much of the picking workforce seems to be itinerant or with no established and committed long-term relationships.  It isn’t obvious why offering more to pickers this year –  if the harvest is particularly early, or particularly good, or labour “shortages” are particularly severe –  need entrench higher rates for all time.

In fact, of course, much of the article channels an ongoing industry push to avoid paying higher wages to New Zealanders to do the job (not just this year, but permanently) by using the immigration system.  You might think that the case for using immigrant labour at times might be stronger than otherwise if there was evidence that wage rates in this industry had been rising particularly stronly (employers putting their money where their mouth is).  But apparently the industry doesn’t see it that way –  and neither (one deduces from their silence) does our current left-wing government, despite its key support base including workers and trade unions.

We are told

Key visa reforms sought by the industry include removing the need for annual reviews once a three-year visa is granted, giving those on three-year visas a pathway to permanent residency if no New Zealand residents are available for the job, and reworking the labour market test to make it more aligned with the employment conditions faced by employers.

It is fruit-picking we are talking about here, not the most skilled of jobs.  And an immigration system that, we’ve been told for decades, is supposed to be skills-focused, contributing to a lift in overall productivity growth, in ways that would raise wage levels for everyone.

As a reminder, there will be few/no/inadequate numbers of New Zealanders offering to work in a particular sector when wages (and overall conditions) in that sector are no longer particular attractive.  In the 1970s presumably our fruit was picked, our old people’s homes were staffed, our supermarket checkouts were staffed, by New Zealanders (whether those of longstanding or more recent immigrants –  but you couldn’t hire people from abroad specifically to fill these modestly-skilled jobs, and in the process keep down wages in that specific sector).

I presume much of what is going on here is that many of these fruit-based industries just aren’t that internationally competitive at current exchange rates. It probably isn’t the case with, say, gold kiwifruit, but for some of the other industries it seems quite conceivable that the economics is pretty tight and it might not be worth being in business if they had to pay materially higher wage rates to pickers.   There are hints of that in the article

“The growers are starting to think whether they are going to invest money because they need to have assurances about labour. It is a bigger issue than probably it is given credit for.”

To which I guess I have two strands of response:

  • first, there are lots of industries that are no longer viable here based on old production technologies (try making a living milking 50 cows by hand) or running a suburban petrol station (in my suburb there were four forty years ago and there are none now).  There might be issues of scale to consider, and/or investment in technology-based solutions, and
  • second, the real exchange rate (averaging more than 20 per cent higher since about 2003 than it did in the previous two decades, despite feeble economywide productivity growth) is a real symptom of the severely unbalanced New Zealand economy.  As a result, our export/import shares of GDP have been shrinking, not rising.    But however attractive the immigration option genuinely looks (and locally is) to an individual employer, on a large scale it exacerbates the economywide problems, not eases them.   For outward-focused industries in particular, a much lower exchange rate –  which would follow directly from substantial permanent cuts in immigration –  would improve NZD returns, and would also make producers in those industries better placed to bid competitively for New Zealand workers to fill their vacancies (or to invest in technological solutions, or the sort that help lift average labour productivity).

Firms simply shouldn’t be able to use immigration to fill positions requiring only modest skills or training without at least being able to demonstrate that the wage rates they are paying for such skills have run well ahead of other wage rates for several years.  But to get bureaucrats and ministers out of the business of picking favoured sectors/firms –  at present, the rewards to lobbying seem quite high – I continue to commend to anyone interested my model for temporary work visa policy.   It is pretty simple

Institute work visa provisions that are:

a. Capped in length of time (a single maximum term of three years, with at least a year overseas before any return on a subsequent work visa).

b. Subject to a fee, of perhaps $20000 per annum or 20 per cent of the employee’s annual income (whichever is greater).

If apple-growers really can’t get workers locally, and are happy to pay a substantial fee to the Crown, on top of a decent wage, I guess I’d be okay with temporary overseas recruitment.  As it is, they seem to simply want to undercut potential returns to New Zealand labour.

Immigration is inherently a political issue

In the few days after the Christchurch shootings, a few of the more rabid on the left appeared to want to rule out of court any discussion – ever –  about immigration policy.  Immigration was good –  was their prior –  and more immigration better, and no correspondence could be entered into.  Decent people don’t discuss such issues, except perhaps to celebrate.

The other day we had a similar sort of voice from another point on the political compass, this time in a column from Kirk Hope, the head of the leading lobby group advocating for the interests of businesses, BusinessNZ.   Despite counting myself pretty strongly pro-market (not at all the same as pro-business) I don’t often agree with Hope (I just googled his name and the name of this blog to remind myself of some of his more-egregious previous claims).  But Stuff seems to think him worth publishing, and he does head a pretty big advocacy group.

Hope’s key assertion?

One of the challenges we must face is for our politicians to stop treating the topic of immigration and immigrants as politics.

What a breathtaking proposition.   One of the most substantial instruments of government economic and social policy and Kirk Hope thinks that it shouldn’t be debated by politicians (let alone, presumably, the rest of us). Politics isn’t a bad thing –  as Hope seems to imply –  but something pretty fundamental, a big part of how we decide (and refine that view) what sort of country this will be.

As it happens, Kirk Hope never actually says how he thinks immigration policy should be decided, if not by politicians, weighed competing interests and claims.  Perhaps by BusinessNZ?   He never even tells us what his own preferred policy is.  Perhaps is he just some open-borders absolutist who thinks the very idea of an “immigration policy” is abhorent?   Probably not (there aren’t really very many advocates anywhere for such a policy).  My guess is that he’d like to keep on with something like our current immigration policy (probably the most aggressive anywhere in the advanced world), and just a bit more.   He doesn’t tell us, just urges that “politics” be removed from the process, all while advancing a mix of threadbare and/or flawed arguments for high rates of non-citizen immigration.

So how does Hope make his case?

First, there is the tired rhetorical trope about “a nation of immigrants”

It is a truth that New Zealanders are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, and we are ethnically diverse.

Which is pretty meaningless, offensive, and acts to diminish people’s sense of identity with New Zealand.  If all human beings are ultimately descended from people emerging from, say, the Rift Valley, at very least everyone other than perhaps Kenyans and Tanzanians is descended from immigrants.  But what of it?  Closer to home, the ancestors of the Maori population came many hundreds of years ago.  They have no other home.  I’m have no idea of Hope’s ancestry, but I’m one of those (of European descent) with no other home but New Zealand –  I’ve never known an ancestor who wasn’t born in New Zealand.  But again, so what?  It is simply irrelevant to the question of how many people we should import now, on what terms, with what skills or backgrounds.   Like many who run the line, Hope makes no effort to draw out any logical implications from his factual statement –  presumably because there aren’t any.

Then we get another factual statement with few/no implications

It is also true that the demographics for New Zealanders born in New Zealand tell a story of aging and regional depopulation.

And?   People leave regions when the opportunities in those regions aren’t particularly attractive.   There is no obvious role for central planners (like Mr Hope) to argue for policy initiatives to repopulate areas they happen to think aren’t growing fast enough.  I suspect that Hope is also hoping to skate over the evidence that New Zealanders have been leaving the region of Auckland for most of the last 20+ years.   And if great opportunities do exist in particular regions, wage adjustments are likely to act as an effective signal (higher wages never seem to be part of how business lobby groups think markets should deal with incipient “labour shortages”).

Then we get a grab bag of statements inviting a “so what?”

We will soon have more people aged over 65 than under 15 years of age. Auckland and New Zealand will be dependent on immigration for skills. Two out of every five New Zealanders will live in Auckland, nearly a third of them Asian.

Isn’t it great –  something to celebrate –  that life expectancy is improving so much that there is an increasing share of the population aged (well) over 65?  Apparently not to Mr Hope.     Or was his (central planning again?) concern that New Zealand couples aren’t having enough babies?

And what of that strange claim about skills?  Is Mr Hope deliberately avoiding the OECD skills data showing not only that New Zealand workers had among the very highest skill levels in the OECD, but that immigrant workers on average had lower skills than natives (that gap is smaller in New Zealand than most, but still there)?  Let alone the official SNZ data that confirmed again last month how poorly the Auckland economy does (GDP per capita) relative to, say, big cities in many other (overall more successful, typically with less immigration) OECD countries.   Inconvenient I suppose.

Then claims start getting more far-fetched

The labour market needs to grow by 1.5 per cent to support moderate economic growth of 2.5 per cent, but actual labour market growth tends to be under 1 per cent. Workforce exits are increasing, while workforce entry levels are modest and declining.   Our people shortage is getting worse.

This is just nonsense stuff.  Sure, all else equal, if your population growth rate is faster so will the rate of growth of GDP.  But – unless you are raising an army –  total GDP doesn’t much matter to anyone.  What matters, more closely, is real GDP per capita and the real GDP per hour worked that undermines that per capita growth.   If, say, the population were static –  as it now is in many OECD countries – 1.5 per cent annual GDP growth would be a quite reasonable outcome.    As Mr Hope surely knows, we’ve had almost no productivity growth recently (despite, because of, or just coinciding with very strong immigration).

A central planner apparently to the core –  did he tell the (generally pro-market) people at BusinessNZ this when he was hired? –  Mr Hope is alarmed about “people shortages”.   This just incoherent stuff, and he shows no sign that he has looked, even cursorily, at how countries are managing where the population is flat or even falling a bit?  As a hint –  but he could check the data himself –  most are achieving faster growth in per capita income and productivity than New Zealand is.

He offers some strange arguments about how we need immigrants to “replace” New Zealanders who are retiring and yet a little later on even he acknowledges that  immigrants themselves get old.  If there are fiscal problems associated with increasing life expectancies –  and there are – why wouldn’t you tackle those directly (eg raising the NZS eligibility age)?

We are then get back to some other claims

Immigration contributes to population and economic growth, provides an expanded talent pool, helps us understand overseas markets, and contributes to the diversity and vitality of New Zealand communities.

I’d be impressed –  though still not thinking that immigration policy should be taken out of the realm of politics –  if he’d claimed (and offered New Zealand evidence for) that rapid New Zealand immigration had boosted productivity growth.  We never know the counterfactual, of course, but in our decades of high non-citizen immigration, we’ve made no progress at all in closing the productivity gaps, and have actually fallen further behind.  Oh, and “understand overseas markets”…..well, perhaps, except that New Zealand has one of the very worst exports (as a share of GDP) performances of any OECD country –  levels and changes –  despite all that immigration.

Not content with the evidence-free-zone so far, Hope ups his rhetoric

Our people shortage is critical now because of the opportunities that are opening for New Zealand business.

The successful completion of the giant Pacific trade deal CPTPP and the likely completion of an European-New Zealand trade deal mean 46 more markets will soon be open to enhanced trade with New Zealand businesses.

So, while our markets are expanding our working population is reducing.

So despite having probably the largest (per capita) non-citizen programme in the OECD, it just isn’t enough.    He calls for even more.

Even serious defenders of the New Zealand immigration programme will be embarrassed by this particular line.  After all, no serious analyst claims that CPTPP will be worth more than perhaps a 1 per cent boost to GDP –  and serious analysts would claim those gains would come through terms and trade and higher productivity, not conditioned on even more people.  As for the EU, I know Hope is a big advocate of that possible deal, but as I pointed out in debunking an earlier article containing his over-egged claims (that the EU deal might finally be what transformed our –  already –  “rockstar economy”), the best sober estimate of the GDP gains from Canada’s “free trade” agreement with the EU was about 0.5 per cent.

And wasn’t there the small point that, despite all the various trade deals New Zealand has signed up over recent decades – including those with Australia and the PRC –  and the reduction in global agricultural protectionism, exports and imports have been falling as a share of New Zealand GDP.  Perhaps another million migrants will make all the difference?  But perhaps not.

Hope ends by getting out the violins

We need to ensure that our political thinking more clearly acknowledges that we are an immigrant nation at our core, that we truly value diversity, that we are inclusive and will celebrate and support new New Zealanders as we all grow our economy and standard of living, contributing to our communities and our future.

I could –  and would- reframe this as something along these lines

We need to ensure that our political thinking more clearly acknowledges that after one of the largest-scale immigration programmes undertaken anywhere in recent decades, there is little or no evidence of economic gains for New Zealanders, and at least the possibility that such rapid rates of immigration, to a location so remote, have made us poorer rather than richer.  Responsibility for that rests not with the migrants themselves –  almost all of them as simply pursuing the best for themselves and their families –  but with our own political and business leaders, who have championed an ideological cause (with both globalist and bigger-New Zealand strands) even as the economic evidence in support of their claims has failed to arrive.  Notwithstanding a wider range of ethnic restaurants (and associated consumption diversity), there has simply been no compelling evidence –  as there is none globally –  that “diversity and inclusion” (as distinct from the ongoing contest of ideas) has produced any economic gains whatever.    If anything, New Zealanders at the bottom of the socio-economic heaps have been paying an increasing price for this obeisance to an “elite” ideology.

I’m still left rather gobsmacked that a supposedly serious public figure can, apparently seriously, suggest that immigration is other than a natural and appropriate subject for intensive political debate.   What is more fundamental to a country than the people who make it up, and yet that is what immigration policy influences very heavily, at least when done on the huge scale our politicians have chosen in New Zealand.  Even at a narrowly-economic level, it represents a significant change in the overall resource mix and productive structure of the economy (especially in a country as natural resource dependent as New Zealand or Australia).

Immigration policy doesn’t make that much difference in any particular year, but we’ve been running something like current immigration policy now since the early 1990s.  In 1992, New Zealand’s population was about 3.5 million. In the years from 1992/93, we’ve granted residence status to more than 1.1 million non-citizens.  That is a huge number.   Some, perhaps many, will think it is a “good thing” –  for various possible reasons –  and others will think it a disastrously bad choice (that’s my view, even if more apparent in hindsight than it could have been in 1992).  Even among those who think it a bad choice, some (me) will emphasise overall economic performance arguments.  Others might emphasise real world second-bests around housing, or traffice congestion, or just a preference for being small.  Others again might emphasise environmental pressures.  Others might raise concerns about precisely the sort of “diversity” Kirk Hope and the cheerleaders celebrate, highlighting issues around cohesion, trust, mutual support etc. And others too might be uneasy about large-scale immigration does to the relative place of Maori in New Zealand.  Some might just think that the ideological etc make-up of future New Zealand should be determined by the individual choices of New Zealanders, not by politicians skewing the future population one way or another.  But all those disputes are naturally and appropriately the stuff of politics.   Given our relative economic underperformance, notwithstanding decades of large scale immigration, all these angles should be debated more vigorously, not less.

Most of my own arguments around New Zealand’s immigration policy have been economic in nature.  On its own, the economic track record should have been more than enough basis for a rethink, were it not for the ideological priors of the champions.  Perhaps the most accessible version of my economic story is here, in a speech I did 18 months or so ago.

I have occasionally commented on various social and cultural dimensions, including in two posts sparked by the 2017 New Zealand Initiative report on immigration policy (here and here) and in some remarks on diversity, and its limits in a stable democracy, here.

I was also reading yesterday an  interesting article from the latest issue of The Atlantic by David Frum on US immigration, experience and policy.  Frum is a pretty determined never-Trumper, and yet he concludes his article this way

Reducing immigration, and selecting immigrants more carefully, will enable the country to more quickly and successfully absorb the people who come here, and to ensure equality of opportunity to both the newly arrived and the long-settled—to restore to Americans the feeling of belonging to one united nation, responsible for the care and flourishing of all its people.

Every country is different, but it is worth recalling that US immigration policy –  under all recent presidents – has targeted non-citizens inflow about one third those of New Zealand (in per capita terms).  I don’t agree with everything in his article, and some of the issues are different for New Zealand than for the US –  there is a more plausible argument in the US context that immigration is roughly a wash (in economic terms) for natives than there is here – but I thought it was a piece worth reading and reflecting on.  I wonder what Mr Hope would make of it?

 

Rereading the UN Compact on Migration

To listen to some of the more overblown rhetoric this week, you’d could only conclude that the speakers/writers thought that anyone opposed to the UN Compact on Migration –  signed late last year by many countries, including New Zealand, but boycotted by another 29 (including 9 EU countries, the US, and Australia) –  was at least indirectly responsible for Brenton Tarrant’s¹ [alleged] act of evil last Friday.

Most directly in their sights, so it seemed, was the National Party which (rather belatedly) opposed the Compact, promised to withdraw from it if/when returned to government, and had been running a petition of some sort opposed to it.  National didn’t help themselves by, whether through incompetence or something worse, initially giving erroneous stories about when the petition had been taken down.  Straight after the shootings appeared to be the final story.  As if they were now embarrassed by their previous stance – or simply anticipated the deranged rhetoric of the last few days.

I went back and reread the UN Compact this morning.   I came away with much the same view as I’d taken in December.   The document is unnecessary (as, largely, is the United Nations), statist, strongly pro-immigration….and it is a little chilling in a few places.  More than enough reason not to sign it –  the world is, after all, awash with largely meaningless resolutions, including from the United Nations, and that shouldn’t be encouraged.  But as I noted in my single post back then, I hadn’t written anything about it previously

as not only was it a non-binding political declaration, but most of it seemed more relevant to countries dealing with substantial illegal migration (and with migration mainly from very poor or disrupted countries – again, not the main situation in New Zealand).

I was, and remain, more than a little suspicious of National’s belated commitment to the issue.

My suspicion remains that National’s stance is more about positioning relative to New Zealand First –  the contest for provincial votes –  than anything of substance.

But perhaps I’m being unfair to them.

What follows is the heart of my earlier post, without blockquoting it all.

But it still isn’t clear to me quite what additional damage would be done by signing up to this pointless agreement.   Sure, even “non-binding” agreements will, at times, be used in domestic and international fora as a rhetorical stick to beat governments with if they ever look like stepping out of line with the mainstream.  But those sorts of arguments rarely deflect a government for long if it has domestic public opinion behind it in some direction or another (for good or ill).

There is some questionable economics in the document.  For example

Promote effective skills matching in the national economy by involving local authorities and other relevant stakeholders, particularly the private sector and trade unions, in the analysis of the local labour market, identification of skills gaps, definition of required skills profiles, and evaluation of the efficacy of labour migration policies, in order to ensure market responsive contractual labour mobility through regular pathways.

Or, alternatively, one could just let the market work it out.  When there are incipient skill shortages, wage rates tend to rise.  Same thing happens when, for example, bad weather creates a shortage of spinach or lettuce.    But, daft as the economics is, this stuff is the mindset of politicians and officials adminstering immigration schemes all over the western world. including New Zealand.  Recall that in New Zealand the current government is trying to get more actively involved in this sort of thing.

There are also totally vacuous bits, like the commitment to support and promote the United Nations International Day of Family Remittances.  Just what the world needs: another United Nations “day”.

Perhaps three clauses troubled me a little more.

There was this one

Enable political participation and engagement of migrants in their countries of origin, including in peace and reconciliation processes, in elections and political reforms, such as by establishing voting registries for citizens abroad, and by parliamentary representation, in accordance with national legislation.

I guess I can see what they are probably driving at (diasporas helping the reconstruction of the country of origin after say a protracted civil war). But, normally, we should expect migrants to commit themselves to their new country and its processes and political values and not be creating doubts about where their loyalties lie.  But in a country in which Jian Yang and Raymond Huo are MPs –  while still closely associating themselves with political interests in their country of origin –  and people like Yikun Zhang appears encouraged to play both sides –  it is hard to see how this particular provisions make things here any worse than they already are (around a small handful of our migrants).

And then there was this one

Promote mutual respect for the cultures, traditions and customs of communities of destination and of migrants by exchanging and implementing best practices on integration policies, programmes and activities, including on ways to promote acceptance of diversity and facilitate social cohesion and inclusion.

Which presents the issues as symmetric when they really should be asymmetric: the focus should be on encouraging the assimilation of the migrants, and ensuring their respect for the “cultures, traditions and customs” of the destination community –  just as when you go to someone else’s place for dinner you respect their practices, table manners etc.   One could also argue that encouraging “acceptance of diversity” and facilitating “social cohesion” are two contradictory, often mutually inconsistent, goals.  But again, flakey as all this stuff is, it is the way our bureaucratic and political “leaders” think and act anyway.  If the behaviour is a threat, it is hard to see that the UN agreement would be more of one.

Relatedly

Support multicultural activities through sports, music, arts, culinary festivals, volunteering and other social events that will facilitate mutual understanding and appreciation of migrant cultures and those of destination communities.

Quite what business this is of the UN –  or even of national governments actually – one has to wonder, but there is the “globalist” mindset for you.   And, again, it is pretty much what central and local governments do anyway.  I was interested that “religion” wasn’t on the list

And then, of course, there is Objective 17 (of the 23 in the document) which I have seen people express more serious concern about.

OBJECTIVE 17: Eliminate all forms of discrimination and promote evidence-based public discourse to shape perceptions of migration

We commit to eliminate all forms of discrimination, condemn and counter expressions, acts and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination, violence, xenophobia and related intolerance against all migrants in conformity with international human rights law. We further commit to promote an open and evidence-based public discourse on migration and migrants in partnership with all parts of society, that generates a more realistic, humane and constructive perception in this regard. We also commit to protect freedom of expression in accordance with international law, recognizing that an open and free debate contributes to a comprehensive understanding of all aspects of migration.

If that isn’t muddled I don’t know what is –  let alone, unrealistic (in no conceivable world are “all forms of discrimination” going to be “eliminated”).

The specifics under that Objective include commitments to

Enact, implement or maintain legislation that penalizes hate crimes and aggravated hate crimes

So-called “hate crime” legislation is almost always bad law and bad policy.  Punish assaults or murders or whatever as that: bad and unacceptable acts, regardless of who they are committed against or why.

And this

Promote independent, objective and quality reporting of media outlets, including internet based information, including by sensitizing and educating media professionals on migration-related issues and terminology, investing in ethical reporting standards and advertising, and stopping allocation of public funding or material support to media outlets that systematically promote intolerance, xenophobia, racism and other forms of discrimination towards migrants, in full respect for the freedom of the media.

Again, muddled at best.  You want to stop any public funding to outlets whose views are “unacceptable”, while having “full respect for the freedom of the media”.   Since I’m not entirely convinced there is a good case for public funding of any media outlets –  and since the publicly-funded outlets in New Zealand are champions of high immigration and all “worthy” leftist causes anyway –  it isn’t clear what difference this might make in New Zealand.    And there seem to be some MPs –  particularly in Labour and the Greens –  who aren’t too keen on allowing free speech on such issues anyway, whether or not we sign up to UN non-binding declarations.

And finally under Objective 17

Engage migrants, political, religious and community leaders, as well as educators and service providers to detect and prevent incidences of intolerance, racism, xenophobia, and other forms of discrimination against migrants and diasporas and support activities in local communities to promote mutual respect, including in the context of electoral campaigns.

All very asymmetric –  nothing at all about engaging with communities that might be uneasy about high immigration, or the immigration of groups with values antithetical to those of the destination community.  Perhaps, in some respects, this commitment troubles me more than most.   “Intolerance” is not an offence (in principle or in law) and it is the perfect right of people to debate –  perhaps especially in election campaigns – the future composition of their society.   A Saudi Wahhabi, a Chinese Communist Party zealot, an American evangelical, and a French secularist are all very different sorts of people. In large numbers, each group transplanted to (say) New Zealand would make a material difference to the society and polity we have here.  Those debates matter –  unless, apparently like the authors of this document –  you regard all differences of culture, politics, religion etc as superficial rather than fundamental.

March 2019 here again.

Rereading that, it still seems about right (and in fact we’ve had chilling signs of the antipathy to free speech from a number of quarters this week).

In their opposition to the compact, National repeatedly asserted that our sovereignty was going to be compromised.  I never quite saw them explain how.   But at the time of the earlier post, some people who were more negative than I was on the document highlighted a risk that –  although the agreement is formally non-binding on governments – our local courts could, or would, over time seek to introduce the provisions of the agreement (and the fact of it) into judicial rulings on immigration issues in New Zealand.   Such judicial conduct is not unknown.  Perhaps that was some of what National had in mind.

I’m not a lawyer, so am not sure how significant a risk that is.  But I guess at the time my response had a number of strands:

  • parliamentary sovereignty is still intact in New Zealand.  Even if it is bad form to legislate retrospectively (re a specific case) there is never anything to stop Parliament legislating to, in effect, counter any tendencies of judges to import non-statutory documents of this sort into their decisionmaking,
  • more substantial and important questions probably should be asked about how we appoint – and who we appoint –  as top tier judges in New Zealand.   These are, inevitably and sadly, somewhat political roles –  not party political so much, as “ideological”.  I had a post last week suggesting a more open process for scrutinising and confirming senior judicial appointments (as well as term limits).    That still seems a higher longer-term priority than a single non-binding UN document, even one with somewhat chilling language in a few areas.

And the third strand –  decisive to me –  was this, with which I concluded December’s post

As I said at the start, there is no obvious need for this document.  And even if there were obvious gaps, the very fact that it is a non-binding political declaration suggests it could meet no substantive need.  But in a New Zealand context, there are policies and practices around immigration that are much more damaging and threatening, particularly to our long-term economic performance, and perhaps in other areas too.  Among them:

  • the immigration policies of the National Party
  • the immigration policies of the Labour Party
  • the immigration policies of the Green Party
  • the immigration policies of ACT, and
  • the immigration policies of New Zealand First

I think that pretty much covers the spectrum.

There is no conceivable universe in which some international declaration –  or even agreement – around immigration would be more liberal and (in our specific economic circumstances) more damaging than what our political parties have done to us all by themselves.

And since Simon Bridges was asserting the other day

“If you look at our immigration position, I think we have the strongest pro-migration position across the Parliament.”

I think you’ll see my point.  As it is, I’m pretty sure he is wrong in his claim. ACT and the Greens, from apparently opposite ends of the political spectrum, beat him to the title.

But to suggest that National should be whipping themselves, or ashamed of their stance on the Compact, is just absurd –  and worse.  (Their ongoing support for our high immigration policies is another matter).  It is, like so many areas of public policy, something around which reasonable people will differ, perhaps quite strongly.  That is the stuff of politics, and indeed of life –  perhaps the more so, the more diverse (ideologically, religiously or the like) your society is.  Ideas matter.  Even non-binding declarations are championed for a reason –  so much energy wouldn’t be expended on them otherwise.  It is reasonable, perhaps, to pose the question to the champions –  or even those more indifferent –  “if it is so inocuous, what’s the point?  Why does it matter so much to you?”

 

  1. I won’t be following the Prime Minister’s stance of not mentioning the name of the [alleged] killer (nor, I presume, will our courts).   I thought this op-ed from the Jerusalem Post dealt with that issue well.   We think no better of Hitler or James Earl Ray or Sirhan Sirhan for mentioning them, and their acts of evil, by name.   More specifically, I’m a Christian and our faith teaches that no one is beyond the possibility of God’s grace. Those are hard words to hear, and at a civil level I’d be quite content if we’d had the death penalty in place.  But vile as the acts were, Tarrant was –  and is – a human being.  And, as Solzhenitsyn sagely put it, the line between good and evil runs not between people or states, but through every human heart.

Looking at the regional GDP numbers

Under this government money from the Provincial Growth Fund has been being flung round like confetti (this was last week’s example), with very little sign of any rigorous evaluation.  It isn’t clear to me whether things are worse under this government than they were before (recall the 13 bridges Simon Bridges was promising in Northland as Minister of Transport, to try to win a by-election) or whether this lot are just “better”
at the branding.   “Regional development” –  with no disciplined sense of what actually shapes economic performance – has certainly been a cause dear to the heart of all recent governments (and their MBIE bureaucrats).

SNZ yesterday released the annual regional GDP numbers.   As ever, these  numbers aren’t perfect –  nominal not real, and prone to revisions for several years –  but they are lot better than nothing, which is what we had until almost 20 years ago.

The Provincial Growth Fund seems to have been particularly concentrating its confetti in Northland, Gisborne, and the West Coast.  The Northland and Gisborne regions are estimated to have the lowest average GDP per capita in New Zealand (at about 70 per cent of the national figure).  As it happens, the West Coast doesn’t do too badly, with average GDP per capita 84 per cent of the national average in the year to March 2018.  Manawatu-Wanganui and Hawke’s Bay round out the bottom five regions (with average GDP per capita less than that on the West Coast).

The regional GDP data have been available since the year to March 2000.  Over the period since then, three of those five regions have had faster growth in per capita GDP than the national average (and by very substantial margins in Northland and the West Coast).  All five have recorded faster growth than Auckland and Wellington.  And if one goes back to 2000, one of the poorest five regions then was the Bay of Plenty, but it has recorded such fast (per capita) growth since 2000 that it has overtaken not just Hawke’s Bay but also Tasman-Nelson.

The picture is a bit less positive if one takes just the last decade, but even over that period growth in per capita incomes is estimated to have been stronger in Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne than in the country as a whole.

As a matter of interest, I also had a look at the unemployment data.  The regional data from the HLFS arem’t reported for the same groupings as the regional GDP data, but here is one chart I constructed.

regional U rates

Even at its worst this decade, the gap between the two lines wasn’t as large as it was 20 years ago.  Last year, it was almost as low as it has ever been.  Involuntary unemployment is a blight on lives wherever it is found, but these particular regions don’t seem to have been doing too badly.

Meanwhile, any guesses as to which regions had the slowest growth in average GDP per capita over the entire period from 2000 to 2018?

Wellington was worst, followed by Auckland as second-worst.

akld wgtn shares

The two regions combined have recorded a material increase in their share of national population, and yet their share of total GDP is unchanged (actually down very marginally).

What about Auckland alone?  If the picture is less dramatic than for Wellington, Auckland matters much more, due to sheer size (and population growth, actual and projected) Here is the latest version of a chart I’ve shown in previous years.

akld gdp pc to 18

It certainly isn’t monotonic.  There are reasonably good phases (which look to coincide with building booms in Auckland) and really bad ones, but there is no sign of the longer-term trend reversing.   An even-greater share of the population is in Auckland, and average output per person in Auckland is growing more slowly than in most of the rest of the country.  In high-performing economies –  at least those relying on something other than really abundant mineral resources –  the picture is typically the other way round.  Big city GDP per capita is typically much higher than in the rest of the country, and in most cases that margin is widening.  But not in Auckland.

Any why is Auckland’s population growing so rapidly when its economic performance has been unimpressive (to say the least).  That’s down to immigration policy.  That isn’t really a debateable point: the data show that (net) New Zealanders have been moving away from Auckland.  This chart was taken from a Treasury working paper I wrote about last year.

tsy akld popn

Our large-scale non-citizen immigration policy –  with targets not exceeded in per capita terms in any other OECD country –  is a practical centrepiece of the economic strategy of successive New Zealand governments.   You don’t hear the phrase now, but it is only a few years ago that MBIE openly talked of the policy as a “critical economic enabler“.  With the best will in the world no doubt, “critical economic disabler” would be a fairer description of the role immigration has played for decades (probably going back all the way to the post World War Two period).  It isn’t the fault of the immigrants –  simply looking for the best for themselves and their families –  but of successive governments and their officials.  They are particularly culpable as the evidence has mounted that their strategy simply is not producing the desired economic results.

The story in Wellington is different of course, but probably no less telling.  Here, local government likes to talk up the idea of a city built on high tech industries.   Central government likes that talk, and also throws (lots of) money at the film industry.    The information in the regional GDP tables doesn’t give a full picture, but there is a line for the component of GDP labelled “Information, media and telecommunications and other services”.  Here is the share of that sector in Wellington’s GDP.

wgtn ICT

Even in Auckland, the share of that sector has been falling –  so there may be something structural around, say, the falling real price of telecommunications going on  –  but nothing like as steep as that fall in Wellington.

New Zealand does macro policy reasonably well –  fiscal policy and (for all my various criticisms at the margin) monetary policy – but our structural policies are set for failure, and in delivering continued underperformance, are doing just that.    The immigration policies pursued by successive governments simply take no account of either our experience (70 years of ongoing relative decline) or our most unpropitious location.   If –  as I noted yesterday –  this is a bad place for basing outward-oriented business (and revealed preference suggests that is so), it is a bad place for governments to engage in “population planning”, importing large numbers of people.  One of the fastest population growth rates in the OECD combined with one of the poorest economic performances should be telling anyone with ears to hear (not our politicians) something important.  The specific relative failure of Auckland just makes that message more stark.

 

 

What is going on with residence approvals?

Late last year I did a post using some data from the near-final version of MBIE’s new immigration statistics dashboard.   The dashboard is now on general release (here) and I should take the opportunity to commend MBIE on the initiative (even while wishing SNZ would now take the key time series and include them in their Infoshare database).  It takes a while to really work out how to make the most of the dashboard, but it means that administrative data (all the information on visa approvals –  and declines) that used to be published in readily useable form only annually and with up to an 18 month lag, is now readily available within 10 days of the end of each month.  For anyone trying to keep track of what is going on around the impact of immigration policy settings –  and recall that the late lamented PLT data was never any use for that –  it is a huge step forward.

And so lets have a look at a few charts, using data to the end of February.   Here is the number of residence visa approvals (and declines), actual monthly data and with MBIE’s “seasonally adjusted trend” (more trend than seasonal) through the data.

Res 1

Recall that the “target” rate of approvals is around 45000 a year, an average of 3750 per month.   The trend in actual approvals has been running (increasingly) below that level for the last two years.   For the current financial year, approvals are running at an annualised rate of under 35000 –  lower than at any time in the last 10 years.   Interestingly, it isn’t that more applications are being declined – in percentage terms, the fall off in declined applications has been larger than the fall in approvals.

I’m at a bit of a loss to know quite what is going on.  There was a slight reduction in the approvals “target” (they like to call it a “planning range”) late in the term of the previous government, but that was the difference only between 47500 per annum and 45000 per annum, nowhere near enough to explain the fall in actual applications and approvals.

I’d heard in several places that a big part of what was going on was shifting more residence visa processing back onshore.   Here is some relevant data on that

res 2

Clearly something has gone on, but (a) for a long time the overwhelming bulk of approvals were granted onshore, to people already in New Zealand (on other short-term visas), and if (b) offshore approvals have dropped away sharply, offshore declined applications have dropped to almost zero.  So I’m no clearer now than I was previously.

The points system is supposed to serve as a rationing device –  a quasi or shadow price. If there are lots of good applicants then, in principle, with a bit of lag the points threshold should be raised, so that we winnow out the lower quality (in terms of how the scheme is set up) applicants.  And, on the other side, if applications are dropping away sharply then, all else equal, the points threshold should in time be lowered and we’d find ourselves taking less-good quality applicants, who would otherwise not have qualified for residence.  But applications and approvals have been well down for two years now, and nothing has happened to the points threshold.

I’m mostly pleased with that –  part of my argument over the years has been that too many of the people we are bringing in (even under the skilled migrant headings) aren’t that skilled at all, and while they are benefiting themselves (and good luck to them) it isn’t doing any good for New Zealand.  Changes made late in the previous government’s term –  tightening up a bit on the one hand, and additional points for regional jobs on the other –  won’t have changed that picture.  But……..keeping the target unchanged (which is government policy, what Labour campaigned on and New Zealand First accepted in the coalition deal, looks a bit empty if the target is going to be persistently undershot (more so than, say, undershoots of the inflation target, since immigration approvals are an adminstrative act, directly under official control).  I’m a bit curious why no journalist seems to have been grilling the government about quite what is going on.  Is this the immigration equivalent of “opportunistic disinflation” –  they’ll take the cuts in immigration approvals if they come, but won’t do anything active to bring them about (or reverse them).  One can imagine there might be some blowback –  except among the handful of open borders people –  if standards for getting residence visas were lowered further.

It is noteworthy too that the fall in residence visa approvals has been concentrated in the streams (business/skilled) that were supposed to be the focus of the immigration programme.   That is so even though, for example, parent visa approvals are still suspended altogether.

res 3

I’m left puzzled about quite what is going on.  The number of people here on shorter-term work visas has still been rising strongly (and most people who get residence were already working here), and if the number of students is now flat, the numbers aren’t falling and an increasing share of the students who are here are in better quality, university, courses.  Quite possibly, a smaller proportion of those doing university study are interested in staying long-term than of those who were doing the PTE courses (often mainly as a pathway to work and possible eventual residence).

res 4

And finally, for those interested, here is what has been happening to residence approvals for our two largest source nationalities.

res 5

The next two biggest source nationalites –  UK and Philippines –  have also fallen away a lot, the former part of a long-term trend decline.

Overall, there are more questions than answered, but it is great to be able to do these sorts of charts quickly and easily.  Many fewer people who meet our quite low immigration standards now seem to be applying, or getting, residence visas, and that despite the apparently quite tight labour market.

Given announced government policy –  a continued high target – that should be a concern to them.    Some questions should be posed to Mr Lees-Galloway (although I can imagine that he would much prefer not to have to face them).

 

 

Terms and conditions surely?

With various media reports around – and numerous annoyed locals –  about Wellington public transport operators failing to deliver contracted services (cancelling services) because they haven’t (note the choice of word) recruited and retained sufficient drivers, perhaps it is time to haul up from the archives a couple of posts I wrote early last year on these and related issues.  Those posts were focused on bus drivers, while the latest stories feature both buses and commuter trains.  I see that, once again, there is talk of overseas recruitment.

This was my first post, sparked by reports that one company was wanting to recruit abroad to fill its vacancies.

Extracts:

What prompted this post was the story this week about a bus company – Ritchies –  wanting immigration approval to recruit foreign bus drivers.  Bus drivers don’t make the list MBIE released of occupations for which there were more than 100 (so-called) Essential Skills visas issued last year, but these occupations were some that did.

Essential skills visa approvals 2016/17
Truck Driver (General) 400
Winery Cellar Hand 396
Waiter 345
Sales Assistant (General) 320
Personal Care Assistant 289
Massage Therapist 259
Baker 231
Painting Trades Worker 220
Builder’s Labourer 185
Kitchenhand 181
Fast Food Cook 118
Farm, Forestry and Garden Workers nec 116
Bar Attendant 102

On the face of it, such roles don’t seem notably more (or less) taxing than being a bus driver.  It is a responsible role, but not one requiring huge amounts of skills or training (according to the story I linked to above 6 to 8 weeks training suffices).    It isn’t the sort of role one naturally thinks of when officials and ministers talk about skills-focused immigration programmes.

The case Ritchies make is that they can’t find locals –  New Zealanders, or people already here –  to fill new roles.

Auckland Transport awarded Ritchies Coachlines the contract to run buses on the North Shore from September.

But the company said so far it had not been able to find enough drivers locally and had asked Immigration New Zealand if it could bring in 110 of them from overseas to plug the gap.

And I’m sure that is correct.  If you pay low enough wages, it is hardly surprising that people with other New Zealand options aren’t lining up to work for you.

At least on the union’s telling

“The problem with Ritchies is that they pay over a dollar an hour less than the industry so their retention rates are minimal. People get trained up then they’ll go to other bus companies where the rates are better. Again Ritchies brings it upon themselves.

On the face of it, it looks like another case of a service contract won largely on the basis of (assumed) low labour costs.

The company more or less acknowledges the point

Mr Todd said the company would continue trying to recruit locally but only had until late June before it would need to look overseas for drivers including in Fiji, Samoa and the Philippines.

He admitted the $20.20 an hour it paid drivers would be difficult to get by on in Auckland but said this was the budget it had to work with.

“Lets face it, any job in the world, if you pay enough, you’ll get people to do it but…those costs will have to be passed on.”

I don’t really see the specific company as the bogey-man here.  They are operating in an environment –  bidding for public contracts –  where the overall level of funding seems to implicitly rely on access to very cheap labour (in this case, according to the company, from Fiji, Samoa, and the Philippines –  the jobs presumably not being attractive to bus drivers from the advanced world, since New Zealand is now a low income advanced country).

The same goes, more or less, for some other public-funded industries. Rest-homes, for example, rely heavily on immigrant labour from poorer countries: the existing level of rest-home subsidies constrain their options pretty severely.  No individual firm has a great deal of market power.  But the overall market is nonetheless skewed by policy choices successive governments have made about access to immigrant labour to fill what are mostly quite modestly-skilled roles.

It is why we need not small tweaks at the margins –  should or shouldn’t bus drivers (waiters, kitchenhands, or whatever) be on the approved list – but an overhaul of the entire immigration system.

But as part of that we should:

  • establish a strong presumption against use of unskilled immigrant labour (which mostly –  although not entirely –  competes with and tends to drive down returns to domestic unskilled labour), and
  • get ministers and officials out of the game of determining which specific roles people can and can’t hire short-term immigrant workers for.

To that end, I’ve argued previously for a system in which Essential Skills visas are granted on these terms:

a. Capped in length of time (a single maximum term of three years, with at least a year overseas before any return on a subsequent work visa, with this provision to apply regardless of skill level).

b. Subject to a fee, of perhaps $20000 per annum.

 

And this was the follow-up post from a couple of weeks later.

Extracts

In a typical market, there aren’t sustained physical shortages –  the price adjusts.  If in this case the price (driver wages) wasn’t adjusting –  if anything there was a suggestion Ritchies would be paying less than the previous operator –  it suggested the plan was to close the gaps another way (bringing in more relatively unskilled people from abroad.)    Ritchies has moral agency in that –  they made a choice to bid that way, and should live with the consequences if it doesn’t work (if, for some reason, MBIE turns down their application to bring in relatively unskilled workers from abroad).   But I didn’t want to focus on the individual company, since they are responding to incentives set up by various arms of government –  Auckland Transport offering the contracts, and even more so MBIE (as part of the New Zealand government) in making immigrant labour relatively readily available for what are really quite unskilled roles.    And it isn’t as if Ritchies is the only company operating this way.   Another operator has won most of the bus routes in Wellington, to take over in July, apparently operating on very similar assumptions about access to new immigrant labour.

I had some comments directly from people involved in the industry, on both sides.  In substance they were making quite similar points.  As one observed, demand growth (in this case for bus drivers) can always be met by expanded capacity (immigration) or higher prices (or wages).  They went on to argue that the ability of some companies to import drivers meant they won contracts, and that it was as clear a case of immigration driving down wages as you could find.

Of suburban driver jobs, I observed last week

It is a responsible role, but not one requiring huge amounts of skills or training (according to the story I linked to above 6 to 8 weeks training suffices).    It isn’t the sort of role one naturally thinks of when officials and ministers talk about skills-focused immigration programmes.

One driver confirmed that training story noting that his employer

…took me on with just a car licence. They spent about 8 weeks training me up and paid for the costs of getting a heavy traffic licence and a P endorsement (essentially a “fit and proper” test.)

In terms of (price-based) evidence of labour market pressures, this driver observed that over five years or so his basic hourly rate has increased by only around 1 per cent per annum (if so, that would be less than the average rate of CPI inflation, so a reduction in real wage rates).

There seem to be a variety of ways to spin the story as to how much bus drivers are being paid, and what the new entrants (Auckland and Wellington) are offering or planning to offer.   …..[But] there doesn’t really seen to be much dispute that the new operators –  claiming an inability to find sufficient local labour –  are not offering drivers more than the current operators.  Indeed, the general sense seems to be that pay for equivalent effort would be less than at present.

And in a typical, well-functioning, market, when demand exceeds supply –  and not just for a day or two  –  the price of the product or service in question will rise (not fall).   Quite how much the rise will be will depend on the elasticities of supply and demand –  maybe a lot more potential drivers would emerge for slightly higher wages (or maybe not), and maybe bus patronage would drop away sharply with slightly higher fares (wages are by far the largest component in bus company costs) or maybe not.  But you wouldn’t expect to see the relevant price –  bus driver wages –  under downward pressure when there is incipient excess demand for drivers.

(It is not as if the outgoing operators have had abundant labour.  As one correspondent noted “Go wellington have about 340 drivers for the current contract but even with huge active recruitment and training from scratch they only get 100 new per annum which is as many as they lose”.)

In fact, the way the bus driver labour market exists seems to be possible only because our governments –  present and past –  have opened up a channel through which supply can be increased, at or below the current price.  Open up incipient excess demand at current –  or lower –  than prevailing wages, and then get in workers on a (so-called) Essential Skills visa.

Bus drivers aren’t an occupation that appears on the official “skill shortage list” (if they were there would no further labour market test involved for any firm wanting to hire foreign labour).  Occupations such as bricklayers, plasterers, bakers, and jockeys are on the list.   But not being on the list doesn’t mean bus companies can’t hire foreign drivers.  There are just more hoops to jump through –  which is why employers who think they might have multiple vacancies (like the bus companies) are strongly urged (by MBIE) to seek an “approval in principle”.

MBIE’s employer guide is here.   You’ll see that for unskilled or modestly skilled jobs, part of the required test is to check with WINZ as to whether there are New Zealanders seeking work they can refer to the employer.   Bus drivers are in that category…….

That looks mildly encouraging.  You can’t just offer the minimum wage (for a job in New Zealand typically paying $5 an hour more than that) and expect to get your approval in principle to bring in foreign workers.   But if your wage contract is a little different from other operators (perhaps base rates are a bit higher, but other payments are lower?)  or even if you can find one other company somewhere in the country paying the same overall rate, you have to wonder (based on total numbers approved if nothing else) how rigorous MBIE is in enforcing the test.  And why, for example, it isn’t given more prominence in their guide to employers?

Because, you see, MBIE is really keen that firms hire foreigners.    In fact, they have whole website pages devoting to extolling the virtues of immigrant labour –  so much so that one has to wonder whether they really see themselves working in the interests of New Zealand citizens.    Employers are told

“Hiring migrants is a great way for you to maintain and grow your business”

And then the first item under that “Why hire migrants?” employers are told

Migrant workers can do more than just fill a gap in your staffing. They bring with them an international perspective and connections, provide support to up-skill local employees, add diversity, and generally can help businesses to stay ahead of their competition.

The “international perspective and connections” being oh so important for bus drivers, bricklayers, or even the cafe or retail managers or aged care nurses (occupations topping the work visa approval list).    There is no hint for example that there might be any disadvantages –  eg lower returns to New Zealanders in similar occupations, or the simple fact that, in aggregate, migrants add more to demand pressures (including for labour) than they do to supply in the short-term.

If we are going to have government officials administering something like a mass market Essential Skills visa scheme, and deciding who does and doesn’t get approval, surely a key aspect of any labour market test should be something along these lines?

“has the effective wage or salary rate for this occupation risen materially faster than wages and salaries more generally in New Zealand over the past couple of years?”

If not, how can you seriously use the term “skill shortage”?    Even if wages in a particular occupation have risen faster than the norm, it takes time for locals to respond and shift occupations, so one wouldn’t necessarily want to jump at the first sign of a bit of real wage inflation in a particular occupation, but if after a couple of years the pressures were persistent then some sort of Approval in Principle for temporary migrant labour –  at wages at or above those now prevailing in the domestic market – might make some sense as a shock absorber.  But MBIE seems perennially averse to markets adjusting in ways the generate higher real wages, even though that outcome is one core part of what we look for from a successful economy.  Successive Ministers of Immigration –  from both main parties –  seem to buy in to the story, and believe that central planning by them and MBIE bureaucrats is going to work better than the price system.  It wasn’t a good system in the Soviet Union, and it isn’t here.

I can’t see a reason why we should be giving Essential Skills visas for suburban bus drivers, and we shouldn’t be creating a system where firms are encouraged to bid in the expectation that they can use that system, rather than pay a market-clearing wage for New Zealand resident workers.

More generally, I don’t think there is particular merit in a system in which officials are picking and choosing which firms can and can’t hire short-term workers.   As I noted in my previous post I favour something along these lines

To that end, I’ve argued previously for a system in which Essential Skills visas are granted on these terms:

a. Capped in length of time (a single maximum term of three years, with at least a year overseas before any return on a subsequent work visa, with this provision to apply regardless of skill level).

b. Subject to a fee, of perhaps $20000 per annum.

If an employer really can’t find a local hire for a modestly-skilled (or unskilled) position, they’d be able to get someone from overseas, but only by paying (to the Crown) a minimum annual fee of $20000.  It is pretty powerful incentive then to train someone local, or increase the salary on offer to attract someone local who can already do the job. If you can’t get a local to do a job for $40000 per annum, there might well be plenty of people to do it for $50000 (and still cheaper than paying the ongoing annual fee for a work visa employee).

There are lots of operational details that would need to be refined, but as a starting point it seems like a pretty attractive system.  In the current situation, if bus companies really can’t find New Zealanders to drive, they could hire foreigners, but would have to pay an additional annual fee to the Crown of $20000 for each approval (but also wouldn’t otherwise have to jump through bureaucratic hoops, legal fees etc).  I’d be really surprised if there were any bus drivers then on Essential Skills visas or –  reprising the list from my previous post – kitchenhands, waiters, or massage therapists.  But, you never know.   If the market price adjusted that much that it was still better to hire a foreigner, that price adjustment might be a pretty compelling argument for a rather more genuine “skill shortage” than what we have now.

Perhaps in the end, MBIE won’t allow the bus companies to hire immigrant labour to fill the vacancies.  I’d welcome that, but the bigger issue isn’t any particular role, but how the system as a whole is designed and operated.

That’s the end of the extracts from last year’s posts.  There are lots of words there, but surely the bottom line is that for any modestly-skilled occupation for which there isn’t a sudden totally unexpected change in demand (and the number of people wanting to use public transport just doesn’t fluctuate that much), persistent “shortages” tell you more about the wages and other terms and conditions being offered than they do about any real sense of unavailable labour?  People will typically pursue the best opportunities available to them.  Make bus (or train) driving somewhat more attractive –  which is what the market signals are suggesting should happen –  and some more people will be interested in, perhaps even keen on, driving a bus or a train.

And lets not allow the immigration system to be used to avoid responding to domestic labour market signals, especially in non-tradables parts of the economy.  There is a place for immigration –  a reasonably generous approach to refugees, and an openness to some really highly-skilled people who might want to settle here (probably quite a small modest number given distance, modest income relative to other advanced countries, and the revealed preference experience –  only a small proportion of our actual migrants have been particularly highly-skilled).

(And, to be clear, the overall wage effects of high immigration are ambiguous, in part because in aggregate immigration boosts demand more than supply in the short run, and there are repeated waves of migrants, and thus repeated short-runs.  I am not one of those arguing that immigration policy is driving wages systematically down.  This post is about the impact in specific localised markets, and even more about the rules regarding labour market tests.)

Immigration data: some questions

For several years now I’ve been complaining about the inadequacies of MBIE’s administrative immigration approvals data.   It really should have been easy to have this data readily available (including in SNZ’s Infoshare platform) very quickly: we manage it, for example, for building approvals.   But it hasn’t been.

For a long time, the public was supposed to be content with the annual Migration Trends and Outlook publication.  It had a lot of interesting and useful data but (a) it was only available on an annual basis and (b) the lags were quite long.  They also made available gigantic spreadsheets which might have been readily useable for those with programming skills or the right software, but for humbler analysts required a significant investment of time to extract the simplest numbers.  And then those spreadsheets themselves were withdrawn –  they discovered, belatedly, some privacy issues.  They in turn were replaced with big PDF documents in small fonts where you could find some of the data updated each month, but still with an annual focus (thus they report year to date data, rather than monthly data).

There is progress afoot.  MBIE has spent a lot of time and resource developing a Migration Trends Dashboard which will, when it finished, finally get us to the point of having timely, useable, monthly data, seasonally adjusted where appropriate.  The sort of standard we’ve long expected for other major statistical series.   I’ve been invited to a couple of consultation sessions with them as the product has been developed and although the dashboard has not yet been formally launched they’ve told me they have no problem if I run some graphs here from the dashboard. (Because it isn’t yet officially launched, and it doesn’t yet work with all browsers, I won’t link to the dashboard here, but if anyone really wants the link to have a play with the data, email me –  address in the “About Michael Reddell’s blog” tab.)

This is the sort of thing that will be readily available: residence approvals by application stream.

R1 Residence Decisions by Application Stream (1)

This is calendar year data, so note that the final observations are only for 10 months.  But even if you scale those numbers up (by 6/5) what is unmistakeable is how sharp the reduction in the number of residence approvals granted in the business/skilled streams –  centrepiece of our economics-focused immigration programme –  has been.    I wrote first about this development a couple of months ago, somewhat puzzled by quite what is going on –  given that there was a small reduction in the residence approvals target last year, but nothing subsequently.

Unfortunately –  I guess it is still a prototype –  the November numbers haven’t yet been loaded in the Dashboard, so I had to go back to the more timely –  if less wieldy –  big PDFs, where the data is in financial year (to June) format.

residence approvals 2018.png

I’ve annualised the five months of data we have for 2018/19 to date.  At present approval rates we are on course for a slightly lower rate of approvals in 2018/19 than we had in 2017/18 –  both below official announced target (centred on 45000 approvals per annum).    Those would be the lowest number of approvals this century to date.

I remain a bit puzzled quite what is going on, and I’d have thought someone should be grilling the Minister of Immigration for answers.  There is an official target and it is not even close to being met.

Here is an update of a chart I ran a couple of months ago of the nationalities of those granted residence approvals (again the 2018/19 numbers are annualised).

residence approvals by nationality

What is striking is the reduction in the number of Indian and (even more so) Chinese approvals.

As I noted in the earlier post

I’m puzzled.  And, of course, I’ve spent years calling for a reduction in the residence approvals target, so in one sense I’m not unhappy to see the reduced numbers.  But I also strongly favour open and transparent policy, and there has been nothing announced suggesting that we should have been expecting –  or that the government was seeking –  such a large reduction in the number of residence approvals being granted.

And the number of points required to get residence is supposed to operate as a quasi-price: if too many “good” applicants are applying, the logic is supposed to be that the points threshold is raised, and if not many applications are coming in, the points threshold is supposed to be lowered.  But I’m not aware of any steps having been taken –  lowering the threshold –  this year.

One possibility is that although the government was not willing to openly take steps to reduce the inflow of (permanent) migrants, they (or at least parts of the government) were not unhappy if the inflow declined anyway.   And even among those champing at the bit for lots of migrants –  one might think of the Prime Minister –  perhaps there is some unease that announcing a reduction in the points threshold might reawaken a debate about the relatively low-skilled nature of many of our (notionally) skilled migrants.   These, after all, were the top occupations for the skilled migrant principal applicants from the most recent Migration Trends and Outlook.

Main occupations for Skilled Migrant Category principal applicants, 2016/17  
   
Occupation 2016/17
Number %
Chef 684 5.7%
Registered Nurse (Aged Care) 559 4.6%
Retail Manager (General) 503 4.2%
Cafe or Restaurant Manager 452 3.7%

And finally, a couple of other snippets of what we are better able to see with the new Dashboard.   This chart shows the number of first-time student visas granted to people from each of the two largest markets, China and India.

student visas FSV

I’d been aware that Indian student numbers had fallen sharply, although the numbers there appear to have stabilised.     The China market, however, is much more important for our universities and I hadn’t been aware that the number of first-time visas for PRC students had also been falling away for a couple of years now; so much so in fact that almost the whole of the boom has reversed.    No doubt the Vice-Chancellors will be even more concerned to keep pressure on the government not to say or do anything that might upset the regime in Beijing, no matter how egregious it is.

That chart is about flows –  first time arrivals.  The stock of foreign students takes longer to adjust, but here from the Dashboard is a chart of the stock of full fee paying student visa holders in New Zealand.

Counts by Full fee paying

And last of all, this is the stock of people in New Zealand with current work visas.  Whatever is going on around residence approvals, the number of people with short-term work visas continues rise pretty strongly (although, interestingly, when I dug down a little, the number of people here on working holiday visas has fallen back a bit from peak).

Counts by Total (Work)

When it is finished, MBIE’s new dashboard will be a significant step forward.  Even now we are beginning to get more information, on a more timely and accessible basis.  That is welcome.  But the better data unables us to pose some as-yet-unanswered questions including (particularly) just what is going on with the centrepiece of our immigration policy, the residence approvals programme.

(And while I’m awarding ticks –  well half-ticks anyway –  for this data, we shouldn’t lose sight of the loss of the data about the comings and goings of New Zealanders.)