1000 Queenstown workers face axe in visa wrangle

Traffic in Queenstown's CBD. Photo: Getty Images
Traffic in Queenstown's CBD. Photo: Getty Images
Queenstown could lose 1000 hotel workers by February unless urgent changes are made to a controversial work visa.

The workers are on accredited employer work visas which will expire within the next seven months unless they get a one-year extension, which at present requires them to be paid the median wage.

About 60% of workers holding an accredited employer work visa in Queenstown will be eligible for a one-year extension, but a third of recently surveyed hospitality businesses have indicated they will not be able to support extending the visas.

That was because there was a "hospitality wage rate", less than the median wage, in place for certain hospitality roles, Queenstown Business Chamber of Commerce member Jo Finnigan said.

"So all of a sudden, the one or two people we want to secure an extension for [in a hotel] have to be paid a whole lot more than they were previously — above, really, where their actual role sits in terms of what they are doing."

The chamber met Immigration Minister Erica Stanford earlier this month to raise some of its concerns over changes to the visa, and propose some solutions.

Part of its presentation included a report focused just on Queenstown’s hotel sector.

Jo Finnigan
Jo Finnigan
Ms Finnigan said that report did not capture the wider sector — including motels, luxury lodges and Airbnbs, for example.

Forty local hotels participated in a survey which formed the basis of the report, indicating that only 20% of about 2300 people employed in the sector are New Zealanders or Australians.

Half of them are on short-term constrained visas and 30% are on the accredited employer work visa.

Of the sponsored workforce employed by the sector, almost 40% will have to leave New Zealand between September and February when their accredited employer work visas expire.

She noted that would have a knock-on effect, because then the rest of the workforce also had to be paid more, which became unaffordable, "especially in this market".

"[It] is buoyant, but it’s also fickle.

"Not everyone’s doing well all of the time — we can’t shift that far, that fast, so that’s where that inability to provide the extension is."

The report focuses, in part, on Queenstown hotel group’s 700 housekeepers, as a case study.

Between September 2023 and February 2024, the resort sold about 4045 rooms a night — an 80.9% occupancy — and housekeepers cleaned an average of 5.75 of them per day, totalling 732,145 for the period.

Predictions are, for the corresponding period this year, about 5726 rooms a night will be occupied.

However, 25% of those housekeepers — 174 people — will have their visas expire during the same period.

Glyn Lewers
Glyn Lewers
"Without a full replacement [of housekeepers], occupancy of just 61% is feasible, representing a potential loss of $62 million in rooms alone, or $9m in GST," the report presented to Mrs Stanford said.

"It’ll also affect all other departments in hotels — including food and beverage, including chefs, front office and spas.

"We are most highly concerned for the quality risk to our tourism reputation, but also the affordability of our lower-skilled roles."

Queenstown Mayor Glyn Lewers said it was an example of why the government had to start giving serious consideration to bespoke arrangements for destinations like the Queenstown Lakes district across multiple sectors, as each one "drives and maintains the visitor economy" and "community acceptance" of tourism.

"All these feed into a growing economy and maintaining a visitor economy for Queenstown that ultimately gives a fair bit of GST back to central government."

Chamber chief executive Sharon Fifield said the chamber was continuing to push for regional settings relating to immigration and believed Mrs Stanford understood the resort was "a little bit different".

Mrs Stanford was working on a report to Cabinet, due to be presented in September before it went out for consultation, that was "a little bit too late" to lessen the blow of the impending employment cliff Queenstown faced, across all sectors, Ms Fifield said.

"We’re coming out of winter [by then]; we’re gearing up for summer — we can’t be in this situation.

"She really understands that and I would hope we have some improvements to the system, or some assurances, before September.

"Or even fixes to the current system."