Work visa change backed

Jim O'Malley
Jim O'Malley
New regional rules for work visas being considered by the Government could help Dunedin find the workers it needs to build a series of major projects, the Dunedin City Council says.

But some city councillors have also cautioned against ignoring the development of local skills for the work.

The debate came at Tuesday's economic development committee meeting, as councillors signed off on a council submission discussing the new approach.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has proposed a rejig of employer-assisted work visas and regional workforce planning, which it is consulting on.

Among the proposed changes is a more regional focus, which would have New Zealand's existing skills shortage list recast for each region.

The aim was to better reflect existing skills shortages within each region, and provide employers with greater ''certainty'' when they were relying on migrant workers to address shortfalls.

Cr Jim O'Malley, speaking at Tuesday's meeting, said the new Christchurch Hospital development was already relying on a large group of migrant workers.

He hoped any changes to work visa rules would not act as a ''surrogate'' for the development of local skills when the rebuild of Dunedin Hospital began.

Southern Partnership Group chairman Pete Hodgson - speaking at a public meeting on Monday - had already said the project faced workforce challenges.

Demolition of the former Cadbury factory site was due to start in 2020, and he was confident the 350-strong workforce needed to build the outpatients facility could be found in Dunedin, but many of the 850 to 950 workers needed to build the inpatients building would have to come from overseas, he said.

''Finding those people is the biggest problem we face.''

Cr David Benson-Pope said efforts to develop local skills, in preparation for the project, were already under way.

Changes to work visa rules would ''augment'' the city's workforce capacity, but he hoped the use of those new rules would be kept to a minimum.

''I don't think there's a conflict,'' he said.

Cr Aaron Hawkins said that although he supported the need to develop local skills, he cautioned against ''flying the flag'' of locals first, ''given the current climate''.

The DCC submission supported changes ''that enhance the ability of employers to get staff they need when they need them''.

A more regional focus would also create ''better outcomes for the regions'', including Dunedin, where growth was ramping up, pressure on housing was increasing and major projects - from the hospital to waterfront - were on the horizon.

Dunedin's population was also ageing, meaning security of the city's workforce was ''vital ... to fill jobs required for our housing demand and future major projects''.

Councillors signed off on the submission with minor changes, including asking for any changes to be deferred until after final decisions were made on reform of the polytech sector.

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