This fact was revealed by Principal Immigration Officer Kairangi Samuela during her presentation to a crowded house at the Global Breakfast Update on Tuesday morning.
Kairangi says 3,685 work permits were issued from 2016 to June 2018, made up of 1,585 new permits; 2,068 extension of work permits, 29 transfers and three Step NZ 3 permits.
Fiji topped the list for the largest number foreign workers residing in the Cook Islands from 2016 - 2018 with 741, followed by Philippines 703, New Zealand 564, China 175 and Australia 148.
“In the Cook Islands, tourist numbers jumped from approximately 73,000 visitors in the year 2000 to approximately 160,000 visitors in 2016,” Samuela said.
She said the surge in visitors was due to the growth in the tourism, construction and other sectors - building approvals, for example jumped from around 8,000 in 2012 to 22,000 in 2016.
This growth, combined with decreasing rates of unemployment had created a lack of workers in a number of sectors, she said.
Samuela provided background information to the current Cook Islands Immigration Act review, explaining the steps through which the proposed draft would progress towards becoming new legislation.
The draft states the “the Cook Islands Entry, Residence and Departure Act 1971-72 (the ERD Act) is not fit for purpose.”
“It does not provide Cook Islands Immigration with the legislative foundation it needs to effectively manage the travel, entry, stay and departure of non-Cook Islanders to the Cook Islands.”
Since the ERD Act had been passed there have been significant changes in the Cook Islands and in the international environment, the draft says.
It is proposed to update legislation controlling work visas and permits because the existing ERD Act, “does not contain any specific provisions for non-Cook Islanders who have an offer of employment with a registered business or incorporated society, or who may be working as technical experts or consultants.”
“Cook Islands Immigration currently manages entry permission for workers based on a long-standing approach: government workers are generally granted an annual permit if they meet character and health requirements,” the draft says.
“Technical experts and specialist consultants may also enter the Cook Islands as visitors and work while in the Cook Islands without Immigration’s knowledge.”
A handout on 2016/17 tourism statistics showed that in the 2015/16 year 260 visitors were recorded being in the Cook Islands for employment purposes. This figure rose to 311 in 2016/17.
“The new legislation proposes to introduce a Work Visa and Permit class and enables different Work Visa and Permit types to be established through regulations,” the draft says.
The proposed legislation includes harsh penalties to address mistreatment of foreign workers. The draft notes that the consultation process for the new legislation has identified potential problems related to issues including foreign national workers not having written employment agreements with agreed terms and conditions. Other issues include employment agreements not meeting the minimum legal requirements, agreements lacking maximum hours, and the potential for workers to be made to work excessive hours under the minimum wage and employment agreements, without clear job roles and responsibilities.
“The exploitation of foreign workers undermines their human rights and the good standing of the Cook Islands.”
The draft says the number of permanent resident certificates that can be granted is maintained at 650 and certificates granted 75 years or more ago are excluded from the number.
The number of permanent residents allowed was increased in 2008 and previously the limit was 500.
The new limit equals around 4 per cent of the total Cook Islands resident population. When the number was increased, the resident population of the Cook Islands was estimated at 15,341.
“At that time, of the total resident population, 91 per cent identified as all or part Cook Islands Maori and another 5 per cent as New Zealand and Australian,” the draft notes.
Around 4 per cent of the population were non-Cook Islands Maori and not from New Zealand or Australia, with most non-Cook Islands Maori living on Rarotonga - hence the decision to make available 650 PR places.
“Cook Islander” is defined in the draft as meaning “a person belonging to a part of the Polynesian race indigenous to the Cook Islands and includes any person descended from a Cook Islander.”
Cook Islanders need to prove their status to access their right, so it can be granted.
The draft notes that proposals contained within it do not represent government policy for the new legislation or regulations, as they have not yet been reviewed and finally agreed to by the Immigration minister (the prime minister) or Cabinet.
The final Cabinet review, feedback and agreement will take place after stakeholder feedback has been received and considered, and draft legislation has been produced.
Consultations on the proposed draft will begin on November 16.