New Zealand’s immigration controls – not in workers’ interests  

by Philip Ferguson

Passports, border controls and immigration laws are a relatively new political development.  They arrived with the emergence of the modern, capitalist nation state, most particularly in the late 1800s and early 1900s, “depriv(ing) people of the freedom to move across certain spaces and render them dependent on states and the state system for the authorization to do so. . .”[1]  They have several major functions as far as modern capitalism is concerned.

Firstly, they help define who is and is not a member of the particular nation-state, imposing divisions upon humanity that would not otherwise exist.  Secondly, they allow the ruling classes of the world to divide the oppressed and exploited of the world along arbitrary ‘national’ lines, pitting them against each other and making it harder for them to unite against their oppressors and exploiters.  Thirdly, borders, passports and immigration controls allow the capitalists of each country to control the movement of labour and wages – bringing in and exploiting workers from other countries whenever they need to and throwing them out when they can’t make a lot of money exploiting them.

In the case of the New Zealand capitalism all three elements can be seen.

The first precondition for the development of the capitalist system of oppression and exploitation in this country was the dispossession of Maori.  This was necessary for the development of capitalist farming and also meant that many Maori no longer had any way of surviving other than selling their ability to work, their labour-power, to (mainly pakeha) capitalists.  However capitalist farming and the exploitation of Maori workers were not sufficient for developing a modern and ever-expanding capitalist economy.  Many more workers would be needed.

Whereas in Europe capitalism developed out of the dissolution and overthrow of feudalism and dispossessed became the new industrial working class, with the employers having little control over who constituted the working class, New Zealand developed differently.  Modern capitalism came with British colonial rule and colonisation and the employers here could actually decide which type of individuals, which type of ‘human material’, would make up the working class – this was done by the control of immigration.  The emerging new ruling class, made up of big landowners and urban capitalists, were very clear who they wanted coming into New Zealand and who they wanted to keep out.  Thus the government instructed its immigration agents in Britain to place priority on the recruitment of wage-labourers (including female domestic servants) of good character:

“The selection of Emigrants must be strictly confined to persons of the working classes, who have established a character for industry, sobriety, and general good conduct, and who are going out with the intention of settling in the Colony, and working there for wages.  Reduced tradesmen and others, not belonging to the working class, or those who, though of the labouring class, have been in the habitual receipt of parochial aid, are decidedly ineligible.”

Only after this was ascertained were applicants to be given the official application form.  Locally agents were instructed to “carefully examine” forms and applicants, and check for mental and bodily defects.  The instructions repeated that the local agents were to ensure applicants were “persons of good character, and of sober and industrious habits.”  There was to be a special report in the case of single women whose migration would not be accompanied by married relatives.[2]  The following month Featherston, the Agent-General for New Zealand, issued instructions in relation to assisted passages:

“Passages are granted to Agricultural Labourers, Navvies, Shepherds, Country Mechanics, and Female Domestic Servants.  They must be sober, industrious, of good moral character, of sound mind, in good health, and must be going to the Colony with the intention to work for wages.”[3]

In 1885, the Immigration Office in Wellington issued regulations for nominated immigration, by which people could nominate family members and friends to come to New Zealand for £10 (migrants over 12 years old), £5 for those between one and 12 years of age, and free for infants under one year.  The regulations stated:  “As a rule, nominations will only be accepted for agricultural labourers and single women suitable for domestic service.”  However “farmers and agriculturists possessed of small capital” would be provided passage at the same rates if “desirous of taking up land in New Zealand”.[4]

The chief ideologist of organised colonisation, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, had closely studied colonisation efforts elsewhere – the Americas and Australia in particular.  He knew that capitalism couldn’t develop without ensuring a ready supply of labour.  However, Wakefield was also a liberal and wanted to avoid what he saw as the rigid social structure of Britain, the blatantly harsh forms of exploitation in British industry and the resulting danger of social explosions – there and here.

The idea was, therefore, that a degree of upward mobility would be created through establishing a set price for land which would mean that a wage-labourer who worked hard and saved money would, after a few years, be able to buy some land.  What they paid the state for the land would then help subsidise the bringing out of a new layer of wage-labourers.  There would thus be upward mobility and social harmony, along with a continuous supply of workers.  While Wakefield’s specific concept of systematic colonisation was undermined by the buying up of land by a small emerging class of big landowners, the connection between controlled migration, upward mobility and a liberal democracy remained central to New Zealand politics.

The specific nature of New Zealand capitalism as a liberal democracy and the early notions about who were suitable as immigrants and who weren’t – no riff-raff from Britain! – shaped the growing state control of immigration through law in the late 1800s.  In this period, following the abolition of the provinces and the development of road, rail and telegraph communications and other infrastructure, all factors which united New Zealand, a single nation-state with its own nationalist ideology emerged.  This ideology and this state attempted to socially select for certain attributes among the population and label these as ‘national characteristics’.  People not possessing these ‘national characteristics’ would be excluded, thereby ensuring a (supposedly) homogenous set-up in which the exploitation of workers by capitalists would proceed in a harmonious manner.

At the time the chief victims of these immigration controls were the Chinese, along with people from Britain who suffered some physical or mental handicap or were regarded as the non-respectable working class.  The Chinese, in particular, were seen in the emerging nationalist ideology to offend against every aspect of what the ideal New Zealander, especially the ideal citizen, should be.  We could summarise the outlook of New Zealand nationalism to the ideal New Zealand citizen and the Chinese as follows:

New Zealand and New Zealanders

a modern, progressive country, moving forward into a bold future, a vigorous and resourceful population,

a land of high living standards, a country free of old world evils, with an educated, healthy and moral population, well-housed and fed,

a ruggedly egalitarian and democratic society, with a confident citizenry able to participate in civic life

men strong and masculine and free of self-abuse and other vice

women moral and feminine

China and Chinese

a country of arrested development, an effete and unresourceful people, a degenerating population,

a land of mass poverty, full of such evils as inequality, over-crowding, disease, slums, illiteracy, immorality

a thoroughly unequal  and despotic society, with a slavish people totally unsuited to democratic citizenship men weak and effeminate, onanists and homosexuals

Chinese women largely barred, but Chinese men seen as corrupting white women and turning them into prostitutes and drug addicts

The first set of qualities tended more to be identified with healthy British or other white European stock.  Overall, then, the Chinese were viewed as the group most likely to undermine the progress, morality and democracy of the new society and as the least capable of self-improvement.  The supposedly degenerate, and further degenerating, character of Chinese society and people was contrasted not only to European citizens of New Zealand but also to Maori, as the latter were seen as having a number of admirable characteristics, including the  manliness of Maori men and the capacity for improvement.  This made Maori more suited than the Chinese for citizenship in a progressive, vigorous, and moral new democracy.

As a target, the Chinese united eugenicists, feminists, liberals, conservatives, and purity campaigners.  These categories overlapped significantly, including in terms of personnel.  Many feminists campaigned for moral purity and were involved in eugenics, for instance.  But what was crucial was the large degree to which there were shared fears and a shared ideological outlook.  Social control was a vital link and required a range of measures and approaches, some of which were shared by more and others by less of the middle and upper class people who dominated these movements and supplied their ideas.  Purity, fitness, whiteness, improvement, fear of degeneration and unrest, ideas of ‘correct’ behaviour for women and men, all of which were crucial for social control and thus social stability, were key elements of the emerging nationalism.[5]  Thus, racist exclusion of Asians from New Zealand – and indeed all white Pacific Rim societies – “arose directly out of virtues of democracy, civic equality, and solidarity.”[6]  The Chinese became “the anvil on which the new young societies were slowly hammering out their national identity.”[7]  The New Zealand case also clearly shows “(t)he sense in which colonial nationalism, a civic sense of ideal citizenship, was both ‘inclusionist’ in its populism and yet ‘exclusionist’ – especially in relation to indigenous peoples, but also to migrants from Asia. . .”[8]

Between 1881 and 1920 a series of harsher and harsher laws were passed to keep the Chinese out of New Zealand.  These laws constituted the ‘White New Zealand’ policy.  They included making Chinese coming into New Zealand pay a massive poll tax – it was increased from £10 in 1881 to £100 in 1896 –the numbers of Chinese allowed per tonne of shipping on which they arrived became smaller and smaller and, in 1899, an English-language test was imposed on everyone not from Ireland or Britain.  In 1920, new legislation meant that people not born in Britain or Ireland had to apply for an entry permit, with the permit system controlled by the Minister of Immigration who simply rejected Chinese applications.

Hostility to the Chinese united conservatives, liberals and the left.  After WW1, for instance, the Labour Party joined with the Farmers Union (controlled by big farmers), the Returned Soldiers Association, the National Defence League (a proto-fascistic organisation founded by the leader of “Massey’s Cossacks”)[9] and the Liberal Party to demand that the already-tight immigration controls be even further tightened.[10]

The immigration restrictions directed at the Chinese had a negative effect on the working class in New Zealand.  In economic downturns workers tended to demand a halt to immigration, thereby dividing themselves off from their fellow workers of the world, instead of fighting the employers who were cutting wages and conditions and attacking their rights.  Moreover, demagogic MPs would soon start diverting working class calls for a halt to all immigration into calls for a halt to “Asiatic”, especially Chinese, immigration.  Powerless and much-discriminated against Chinese, who bore no responsibility for the economic downturns inherent in capitalism, became the object of New Zealand workers’ frustrations.  The hostility to the Chinese, which was a logical result of immigration restriction, meant that racist gangs could attack Chinese shops and people.  In one case, a racist, Lionel Terry, decided to see if it was possible to murder a Chinese person with impunity.[11]

The poll tax wasn’t abolished until 1944, when New Zealand was allied with China in WW2 and the continuance of the tax looked bad when the Allies were supposedly fighting fascism and its racial obsessions.  New Zealand was the last country with an anti-Chinese poll tax by that stage.

World War II and the fight against fascism made racism a lot less respectable.  This and the need for far more workers due to the massive post-war economic boom meant that the New Zealand ruling class could not fill the labour shortage with European labour alone.  Employers and the governments, Labour and National, which represent and manage their interests therefore turned to the Pacific.  Tens of thousands of Pacific Islanders were encouraged to come and live and work in New Zealand in the 1960s and early 1970s.

When the postwar boom came to an end in 1973/74 and a protracted period of economic problems set in, they became the first scapegoats.  In 1974 the Labour government had been conducting an immigration policy review to shift immigration controls away from being blatantly based on ‘race’ to being based more on ‘merit’ – which, in essence, meant the skills needed in the capitalist economy of the time.  However, this new ‘non-racial’ approach had clear limitations.  It continued the idea that some people were to be included and everyone else was to be excluded.  What this meant, especially in the context of a major economic downturn, was made clear when Labour began the infamous ‘dawn raids’ against Pacific Island ‘overstayers’.  Immigration police would carry out raids in the early hours of the morning and Pacific workers could be chucked out of the country at will.  Opposition forced the racist Labour government to back off, but the raids were renewed by National after it came into power in 1975.  In fact, people with brown skins, including Maori, began to get picked up on the street and accused of being ‘overstayers’.

The desire of the bosses and their governing parties and state apparatus to engage in mass deportation of Pacific workers ran into problems, however.  One was that many Pacific Islanders held New Zealand citizenship – for instance, people from the Tokelaus, the Cooks and Nuie.  The situation with Samoans was also complicated by the fact that New Zealand’s ruling class had organised the invasion and takeover of Samoa in 1914 and it was a New Zealand colony until 1962 and the exact citizenship rights in New Zealand of many Samoans was unclear.

The other problem that the raids ran into was political opposition, from Pacific workers and community organisations and the left.  Protests took place across the country against the raids and deportations.  Cases were also taken to court.  One case ended up going before the Privy Council in London, with the Privy Council ruling in 1982 that Samoans born between 1924 and 1948, and their children, were entitled to be New Zealand citizens.  This called into question the seven-eight years of raids and deportations.  The National Party government, with the full support of Labour – Labour leader David Lange even insisted on accompanying National prime minister RobMuldoon to Samoa to put them in their place – rushed through new legislation to strip 80,000 Samoans of potential citizenship rights.

The way in which immigration controls work to divide workers and pit them against each other instead of against their exploiters was seen during this period, as it had been seen during the height of anti-Chinese campaigning.  The scapegoating of Samoans and others, such as solo mothers, was a prominent theme of demagogic National Party leader Muldoon.  He used racism and attacks on beneficiaries in a populist way to win support from economically hard-pressed sections of the middle class, such as small businessmen, and also backward sections of the working class.

The leadership of the trade unions was not prepared to stand up to the use of racism as a divide-and-rule weapon and so workers’ resistance to attacks by employers and the government were undermined.  The lack of a fightback also ensured that demoralised and frustrated sections of workers joined their own exploiters and oppressors in blaming ‘overstayers’ and people on welfare benefits for the recession and their worsening economic position.  The system escaped blame.

Over the period from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, more people left New Zealand than were entering it every year except two.  The net loss in 1979 was 40,000 – the biggest in the country’s history.[12]  Moreover, most of those who left were young to middle-aged workers whose labour-power was important to the New Zealand economy.  Somehow they had to be replaced.

In 1984 a new Labour government came to power and launched the biggest attack on workers’ living conditions and rights since the Depression of the 1930s.  The neo-liberal reforms of this period tended to remove ‘non-market’ forms of discrimination, while intensifying the rate of exploitation of the working class.  Part of the reforms was therefore a review of immigration policy.  As the government website on immigration policy records:

The Immigration Act 1987 emphasised skills needed in the domestic economy, the contribution which could be made by business migrants bringing capital, the humanitarian recognition of reuniting families, and a commitment to accept 800 refugees a year.

In 1991 the National government introduced a points system using criteria of age, skills, education and capital; criteria which again were blind to ethnicity.[13]

In other words, the needs of the New Zealand capitalist economy of the twenty-first century are different from those of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century – and even the 1960s and 1970s.  We now, supposedly, have ‘non-racial’ immigration controls.

Reviews and/or new amendments to immigration legislation have occurred most years since 1990.  In the 1990s these were mainly about streamlining procedures and tightening the points system to ensure the capitalist economy got the kind of skills it was after from immigrants.  In 1997, there was also a cut in refugee quota, from a measly 800 a year to an even more measly 750.  In 1999, a new amendment empowered the state to remove people without entry permits more easily.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century changes ensured employers more freedom in selecting skilled workers from abroad.  In 2005, an amendment made it harder to gain citizenship.  Migrants had to be resident for five years instead of three and this longer residency was extended to spouses of New Zealand citizens.  From January 1, 2006 children born in New Zealand no longer had automatic citizenship – they now have to have New Zealand citizenship or permanent residency rights in New Zealand, Nuie, the Cooks and the Tokelaus.  Changes made under National (1995) and Labour (2002) also raised the level of English required to enter New Zealand.

Despite the formally ‘non-racial’ nature of immigration controls today, discrimination continues to be intrinsic to the immigration policy of the ruling class and their state in New Zealand.

For instance, the people who are most likely to have the work and language skills that are most sought after by the New Zealand capitalist economy are white people from other First World countries and some middle class people from the Third World.  Moreover, the cost of applications for a number of types of entry, even for those married to New Zealand citizens, are substantial.  Take the case of a Korean, married to a New Zealand citizen: the cost of simply applying for a resident visa under the family category is $NZ1,350, with no guarantee that entry will be granted.  Even if the visa is granted, another one is required in two years time.  An application for the parent retirement category is $NZ2,800 from Korea, the same as for a wealthy entrepreneur.[14]  In addition, expensive health checks are required; these can run to several thousand dollars, depending on the country.  The message to the masses of exploited and oppressed poor people from the Third World (and even parts of the First World) is still: Not Welcome Here.

The exception to this is where there are labour shortages in areas of work with low pay and poor conditions – for instance, harvesting work.  In 2007, Labour introduced the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme.  The RSE essentially allows migrant labour to be utilised to do seasonal work for pay and conditions that NZ workers would simply not accept.  Such migrant workers are often too afraid to speak out or to organise because they’ll be sent back to their homelands.  They’re at the mercy of their bosses and the recruitment agents, often ending up earning very little because of the fees deducted by both.[15]  Indeed, the conditions of work and absence of rights makes the RSE scheme look like something out of the 1800s migrant contract labour – or “coolie” – schemes used in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, South Africa and parts of the Caribbean.

The RSE scheme also has a logical corollary in illegal schemes using undocumented workers.  Between 2007 and 2010, 18 people in Marlborough and Hawke’s Bay were charged with running such illegal schemes.  For instance, in July 2010, three directors of the Hawke’s Bay company Contract Labour Services (NZ) Ltd were found guilty of running an illegal scheme which supplied cheap labour to local growers.  According to local paper Hawke’s Bay Today, “One Crown witness, a former CLS employee, estimated that up to $100,000 a week in false invoices had been generated at peak periods.”[16]  Glenys Robinson, the Department of Labour group manager of border security, declared: “Stamping out this offending (is) in the best interests primarily of the New Zealand workforce, who have first right to these jobs, and, secondly, our Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme, which was developed specifically to ensure we have enough legal workers to meet seasonal requirements.”[17]

However, such immigration controls, schemes like the RSE and other sorts of divisions within the workforce – documented versus undocumented; foreign-born versus NZ-born; male versus female and so on – are not in the best interests of any workers in this country.  In increasingly globalised and multi-ethnic societies such as New Zealand, workers can less than ever afford to allow ourselves to be divided along ethnic or national (or any other) lines – we need workers’ unity in order to fight and win anything substantial.  Workers in New Zealand can’t make any serious progress without recognising that they are part of a class and that this class is global.  Opposing immigration controls is crucial to the fight for workers’ unity, and thus workers’ power and liberation.

[1] John Torpey, The Invention of the Passport: surveillance, citizenship and the state, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p4.  Torpey is writing most specifically about the passport but it, in turn, is closely connected to immigration and border controls.  Torpey also mentions the role of capitalism, p8, p19.

[2] I.E. Featherston, Agent-General for New Zealand, Instructions to Local Agents for the Selection of Emigrants to New Zealand, London, January 1872.  National Archives, Wellington, IM file.  For single women, see also Instructions to Matrons on Emigrant Ships, IM33.

[3] I.E. Featherston, Agent-General for New Zealand, Assisted Passages, London, February 1872.  National Archives, Wellington, IM File.

[4] J. Ballance, Minister of Lands and Immigration, Immigration Office, Wellington, 28th September, 1885, Regulations for Immigration to New Zealand. Nominated Immigration.  National Archive File IM, le1, 1887/136.

[5] The link between racial purity/homogeneity and nationalism has been made in, for instance, Donald Denoon, Philippa Mein Smith and Marivic Wyndham, A History of Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, Oxford, Blackwell, 2000, pp210-11.

[6] Avner Offer, The First World War: an agrarian interpretation, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1989, p170.

[7] Charles Archibald Price, The great white walls are built: restrictive immigration to North America and Australasia, 1836-1888, Canberra, Australian National University Press, 1974, p260.

[8] “Introduction”, in John Eddy and Deryck Schreuder (eds), The Rise of Colonial Nationalism: Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa first assert their nationalities, 1880-1914, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1988, p3.

[9] This was the name given to reactionaries who were deputised to attack and injure workers during the 1913 waterfront dispute.

[10] See Philip Ferguson, “Labour’s racist roots”, revolution #17, March-May 2002, pp8-12.  See also Daphna Whitmore and Philip Ferguson, The Truth about Labour: a bosses’ party, various editions; new edition forthcoming.

[11] Terry wasn’t hung for the crime but sent to an asylum.  Whether or not he was mad, Terry’s views were a logical development from the views of upper and middle class mainstream opinion in relation to the Chinese.

[13] Ibid.

[15] For an in-depth study of a particular case, a group of 23 workers from Vanuatu, see the post-graduate research paper by Lina Ericsson, “The Ni-Vanuatu RSE-Worker: Earning, Spending, Saving, and Sending”, 2009, at:

[17] Ibid.