Skilled Migrant Category in the time of Covid-19

During Levels 4 and 3 of New Zealand’s lockdown earlier this year, New Zealand businesses were encouraged to work from home if possible. We saw many companies develop new strategies and improve their systems. At Pitt & Moore Lawyers, we established a virtual office that kept us together but apart, working online and via phone to successfully continue delivering the service and solutions that our clients have come to expect.

Unfortunately, the same successes can’t be claimed by Immigration New Zealand. Throughout Levels 4 and 3 during March to May this year, a significant number of INZ staff couldn’t work from home. While visa applications and expressions of interest continued to come through, there were significant difficulties in processing applications, especially when it came to hard copy applications. Work by Immigration New Zealand almost ground to a halt.

While Auckland is again in the midst of Alert Level 3, this time Immigration New Zealand’s operations don’t appear to be as badly crippled, but further delays have crept in which is not good news for visa applicants.

Unprecedented delays

The lockdown and virtual closure of Immigration New Zealand during March to May this year, exacerbated an already massive backlog of skilled migrant category (SMC) residence applications. In November 2019, there were over 10,000 migrants who had submitted their SMC residence applications and were waiting for news from Immigration New Zealand. With seriously hampered processing ability and more applications still coming in throughout the initial lockdown period, that number quickly ballooned. Today, the figure is around 13,000.

We understand that Immigration New Zealand are currently allocating SMC applications to Immigration Officers for assessment that were lodged during January 2019. As a result, it appears on average it is now taking nearly 18 months for an SMC residence application to be allocated for assessment and up to 2 years for a decision to be made. This is an all-time high delay for the SMC category in New Zealand!

Many migrants who have lost their jobs as a result of Covid-19 and who have already submitted their SMC applications, may lose their opportunity to gain residence due to the processing delays.

Sadly, we can’t see this situation improving any time soon until perhaps Immigration New Zealand dedicates additional staff resources to address the SMC backlog.

A hold on the selection of Expressions of Interest

One of Immigration New Zealand’s responses to Covid-19 was to indefinitely suspend selection of Expressions of Interest (EOIs) from the EOI pool. This decision means that no new SMC applications can be lodged at this time.

Immigration New Zealand’s decision to stop selection is problematic for a number of reasons, least of all that EOIs are normally valid for 6 month from the date of initial submission, or until there is a further draw. Immigration New Zealand has not advised that it will reimburse EOI lodgement fees, nor have they given any indication as to when the selection process will recommence.

Another ramification of suspending selection of EOIs is that the exception to the labour market test for migrants who have been invited by Immigration New Zealand to submit their SMC applications, when lodging a new Essential Skills Work Visa application is not currently available. This means skilled migrants’ employers, who otherwise might not have had to prove there are no New Zealanders who can do their job when applying for an Essential Skills Work Visa, would need satisfy that test.

Whilst it is appropriate that New Zealanders are employed ahead of migrants, the migrant protection was put in place in recognition of the need to retain skilled migrants to maximise the level of skilled employees in the national workforce and to provide individual employers with certainty and continuity around their specific workforce.

Long term ramifications for New Zealand

The recent overhaul of Essential Skills Work Visa, which we have addressed in a separate article (go to is going to create continual uncertainty for migrant workers.

Skilled migrants may be forced to leave New Zealand, particularly if they don’t see a timely pathway to residence. Where does that leave New Zealand?

Given the large number of SMC applications in the queue, I contend that this is a strong indication of the level of skill shortage in the country at the moment.

Sure, there may now be New Zealanders who have been laid off or have returned to New Zealand who could now fill some of those roles, but to think that we do not still need large numbers of skilled migrants in our workforce is short-sighted.

And what happens when the domestic economy picks up and employers start to recruit for positions that were lost? Who will fill the roles that will be created to ensure that upswing? And what about when foreign economies pick up and those Kiwis who returned prematurely to New Zealand head back overseas?

If we don’t retain skilled migrants, then that may impact recovery of our economy.

Skilled migrants are a major part of that economic recovery. If we lose skilled migrants – doctors and nurses, engineers and electricians, bakers, butchers and the like, those with recognised qualifications and years’ experience – then, when the economy picks back up, they may not be eager to come back if we have treated them poorly in the short-term.

Covid-19 and its impact on our country make for an awkward situation, one that bridges public health, the economy, our communities and the world at large. But it’s also prompted some important dialogue regarding how the knee-jerk reactions of Immigration New Zealand are going to affect us long-term.

Talk to us

If you have any questions about the Skilled Migrant Category or need immigration advice or assistance with your current circumstances, please contact Mike McMellon on 03 548 8349 or

Disclaimer: The information contained in this publication is of a general nature and is not intended as legal advice. It is important that you seek legal advice that is specific to your circumstances.

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