Almost 6000 overseas workers and their dependents have been granted an exception from New Zealand's tight Covid-19 border controls under the essential or critical worker criteria - but an immigration lawyer says it's time to "lower the bar a bit" to encourage economic recovery.
New Zealand's borders are closed to almost all travellers, except for New Zealand citizens or permanent residents, their partners or dependent children, Australian citizens or permanent residents who usually live in New Zealand, some air and marine crew members, and diplomats who hold posts here.
There are also border exceptions available for people deemed to be critical health workers - all other workers need to apply through the other critical worker category, and then if approved, apply for a visa.
There have been calls from multiple sectors for more workers to be let in to address the shortage, in particular horticulture, with suggestions there could be looming shortages and price hikes for fruit and vegetables.
Notable exceptions have included hundreds of Russian and Ukrainian fishermen allowed to enter New Zealand, several of whom tested positive for Covid-19 while in managed isolation.
Immigration lawyer Rachael Mason of Lane Neave said her firm is dealing with many clients who have been declined an exception for their workers after underestimating the rigorous process.
"We've had lots of people who have given it a go at getting it themselves," she said.
"It looks like common sense, but the threshold is actually way higher than it appears - it depends on the quality of the requests."
Mason said her firm has assisted clients including "very senior, very unique people" only to see them declined, "and we've just had to fight tooth and nail to get their requests approved.
"That's a concern when you're trying to encourage a recovering economy."
She said Immigration New Zealand's decision-making could be "highly subjective" and "inconsistent", and warned that the average employer would likely have trouble obtaining an exemption on their own.
She said in her opinion it was time for the Government to "lower the bar a bit".
According to Immigration New Zealand (INZ) guidelines, those assessing other critical worker applications have to judge them based on a range of criteria, available here.
In a response to an Official Information Act request earlier this month, INZ also revealed the additional guidance (PDF) which assessors are using to decide on applications.
RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT, FISHERIES AND SPORT/RECREATION WORKERS A MAJORITY
Figures released by INZ this week detail the total number of employers applying for workers to come to New Zealand, their success rates, and the number of workers granted exceptions, with the figures covering the period of June 18 until November 12.
By far, the greatest number of exceptions have been granted to those in the research and development sector, followed by fisheries and sport/recreation, making up 1377 (33.4 per cent), 777 (18.9 per cent), and 512 (12.4 per cent) of all the exceptions, respectively.
Workers from those three sectors alone make up almost two thirds of all the workers given an exception.
At the other end, just one worker has been granted an exception in the horticulture sector, two in tourism/hospitality, three in mining and seven each in forestry and retail.
In terms of the sectors most likely to be granted exceptions, film/television was top of the list with 86 per cent approval, oil and gas with 80 per cent, and research and development with 77 per cent.
In total, 1646 applications were made for exceptions between June 18 and November 12, and 1581 of those had been decided - 47 per cent (746) were approved for a total of 4117 workers.
An INZ spokesperson said those numbers did not include dependents of those workers, and as of November 16 the total number of approved workers and dependents was 4835.
They also confirmed that a total of 1135 workers and dependents were granted an exception under the 'other essential worker' category prior to June 18, before it was changed into the 'other critical worker' category - they did not provide a breakdown of which sectors those earlier exceptions were granted in.
That brings the grand total number of workers and dependents granted an exception under the scheme to 5970.
INZ emphasised that "this is the number of requests received and approved, resulting in an invitation to apply for a visa being issued - it is not the number of subsequent visa applications that have been received and approved.
"Once they submit their visa application, that is then assessed and individuals are still required to meet normal immigration requirements (for example health and character requirements)."