Immigration In New Zealand: Facts & Myths
This article looks at immigration in New Zealand/Aotearoa in the context of the impending General Election and it use as an issue by the main political parties.
Immigration was a major issue in the United States in the 2016 elections. It became a pivotal issue in the British and French elections earlier this year and now it’s an important factor here in the lead up to September’s power circus.
Concerns about immigrants driving up both the availability and affordability of housing, taking low paying jobs from local people and that some immigrants pose a threat on a cultural level, have resurfaced.
These claims are neither new nor valid. At best they are half-truths but mostly they are blatantly untrue. They’re just the same old xenophobic arguments that have been updated for the second decade of the 21st Century so that the real causes of many of these issues don’t have to be addressed.
Although Labour’s ham-fisted and disgusting attempts to blame Asian immigrants for the housing crisis by revealing the number of “Asian sounding” names of house buyers in Auckland blew up in its face (“Labour’s ‘half-baked’ property data turns Chinese buyers into ‘scapegoats’”, Stuff, July 11th, 2015) some have bought into the myth.
In reality it is difficult to prove conclusively who is responsible for driving up house prices. That is because such information has not been made available for commercial and privacy reasons. Depending on who you choose to believe, it would seem to be New Zealanders, particularly those who are returning from Australia, who are the largest buyers of housing in Auckland and elsewhere. (“Revealed: The truth about foreign buyers”, NZ Herald, May 10th, 2016.)
When the housing market has a large speculative motivation behind it, as it has in recent times, supply and demand isn’t that relevant. What matters is the ability to buy and sell houses at a price that will deliver large profits to the speculators. Rents are going up not because there is a shortage of housing as the result of the number of immigrants increasing but because property speculators are leaving the houses they buy sit empty while the value of the property increases. In real estate circles this is called “land banking”: an utterly repugnant practice at a time of record levels of homelessness. (“Martin Hawes: Why is Auckland property so hot?” Stuff, June 12th, 2016.)
Even if immigrants were not buying or renting housing it is unlikely that local people would earn enough to be able to do so themselves. Few landlords show willingness to rent to people who are most severely affected by the homelessness crisis: beneficiaries, Maori, Pacific Islanders and single mothers. Thus, despite NZ First and the Labour Party embracing anti-immigration policies to various degrees, they are fooling themselves (or more accurately trying to fool us) if they believe that restricting immigration will meaningfully address the housing crisis.
Another claim being made is that immigrants are ‘stealing’ jobs from local unemployed people: a claim made not only by NZ First and Labour but also by churches like the Salvation Army. (“Too many jobs going to migrants – Sallies”, Radio New Zealand, October 19th, 2016.) In reality, while it is true that low skilled immigrants have arrived in larger numbers in recent years – a fact confirmed by the NZ Immigration Service – it has not resulted in fewer jobs for people already here.
In part this is because low-skilled immigrants end up in jobs that have either been created specifically to take advantage of low-skilled migrant workers, such as seasonal farm jobs, or in jobs where the employers are of the same ethnicity or nationality as the immigrants, such as in the retail sector. In the Wellington region it has long been common practice among Chinese, Indian and Turkish people to set up small businesses then hire family and friends of the same ethnicity or nationality to work in them. If you don’t like this, it’s worth noting it is also common practice in small to medium sized businesses owned by locally born New Zealanders.
Even if New Zealand follows the practice of the United States and starts deporting large groups of immigrants, it is almost certain the jobs they have will go with them: a fact New Zealand should’ve learned back in the late 1970s and 1980s when the government deported thousands of Pacific Island “over stayers”. Very few of the jobs those who were deported were doing, went to New Zealanders. Instead the jobs simply ceased to exist.
If low skilled immigrants were deported the economy in many parts of the country would face serious problems and unemployment could increase considerably. Business New Zealand, the organisation that represents employers, and many media commentators have been amongst the staunchest opponents to curbs on immigrants. This is because they view immigrants as more desirable than the unemployed, whom they see as lazy drug abusers who don’t want to do the sort of work immigrants are doing. (“Our approach to immigration is a disgrace”, Stuff, April 21 2017.) This is despite the Ministry of Social Development’s figures showing that less than 0.2% of job seekers have tested positive or refused drug tests and that most beneficiaries want to work. (“Bill English claims about Kiwi jobseekers using drugs ‘not backed by data’”, February 28th, 2017.) It’s really about bosses being able to exploit whoever they feel is easier to use to make profits out of and a classic ‘divide and conquer’ tactic.
Finally, there’s the hoary old chestnut of “they want to impose their way of life upon us”. This tired argument was used to justify anti-Chinese immigration policies in the late 19th and early 20th Century and to rationalise not admitting Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany prior to World War Two. It was even used to excuse the racist Dawn Raids against Pacific Islanders in which thousands were deported. It’s also deeply ironic when you look at the history of this country in terms of colonization and who imposed themselves on others.
In the many discussions with recent immigrants I’ve had, I have discovered that most have come here because they’re looking for somewhere safe and secure for themselves and their families. They want to earn a livelihood, take advantage of any opportunities that come their way and generally do what most people around the world want to do. The last thing they want is to somehow impose their own culture, faith and beliefs upon the majority. Again, considering the colonial past of this country, that’s a refreshing change.
If these immigrants are guilty of anything it is the depressing lack of any desire other than to pursue the petit-bourgeoisie ‘Kiwi dream’ of a nice house in the suburbs, a steady and secure white-collar job and a pleasant retirement once they reach a certain age.
To some extent there is a certain logic behind this type of thinking. A sizeable proportion of people who came here recently have come to escape religious fundamentalism, political persecution and conflict. It’s to be expected that people who have lost everything and put their very lives on the line to escape from the likes of Bashir Assad, Saddam Hussein or any number of other dictators or from groups like Islamic State, wouldn’t seek to impose despotic or religious fundamentalist rule here– or seek any revolutionary changes. Sure, as with any group there will always be a few who really are the sort that the far right and NZ First love to terrify old white people with. In the real world these types of immigrants are extraordinarily rare though.
Despite the scaremongering surrounding immigrants, particularly Muslims, I would argue that most who come here contribute out of all proportion to their numbers. In the United States it is estimated that Hispanic migrants alone contribute an estimated $1.3 trillion dollars a year to the economy. Indeed immigrants have made such a huge contribution to the economies of many major American cities, they actually want more immigrants. (“Why American Cities Are Fighting to Attract Immigrants”, The Atlantic, July 21st, 2015)
The free market think tank, New Zealand Initiative has argued “Of those who do choose to move to New Zealand permanently, analysis of the New Zealand General Social Survey show immigrants integrate well. They are less likely to claim a benefit, more likely to be employed, and their children have better education outcomes than native born New Zealanders. There is relatively little ethnic or migrant clustering, and where concentrations do occur there is no indication of high unemployment. 87% of migrants say they feel they belong to New Zealand. Surveys show New Zealanders too have a generally positive view of migrants, and value the contribution that make to the economy and the cultural diversity they bring.” Of course, the people behind the NZI have their own agenda in presenting these points. They implicitly view immigrants as useful cogs for bosses to slot into the capitalist economy. Nevertheless, it shows how more sensible they are in understanding the nature of immigration than the supposedly ‘progressive’ Labour Party.
Immigration is not something to be feared under the misguided notion that immigrants are somehow a threat to those of us who already live here. Granted my Maori ancestors arrived here sometime in the 13th Century and the first of my pakeha ancestors arrived here in 1840 but, like today’s immigrants, they all arrived from elsewhere in search of something better. It’s also why many people born here move overseas. Which in passing brings up the point that the current government can’t boast that the recent increase in immigration somehow shows how wonderful things are here. Yes, compared to war torn countries, it is better to live in a quiet part of the southern hemisphere or just about anywhere else for that matter. However, if you are more interested in comparing upwards rather than against the worst case scenario, you have to factor in the ‘seventeenth region’ a.k.a the 600,000+ people from here who prefer living elsewhere. In addition to the million people who didn’t vote at the last election, the politicians should be aware of this sizeable number who have voted with their feet.
If it is acceptable to let the rich elites travel with few or no restrictions then surely that should extend to ALL peoples? I would rather have an Afghani working class labourer who understands about losing everything, making sacrifices for themselves and their families and who knows what hard work is as a neighbour, than an American businessman who bought his way in by waving $20 million under the noses of immigration officials.
So to conclude, immigration is not a problem. It’s an issue being exploited by politicians who know better, but are trying to play on people’s fears and emotions. Being able to decide who you live around is a natural thing. However, we really can’t afford to put those decisions in the hands of power merchants who only use its importance to suit their own ends every three years.