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Chamber of Commerce and Tourism welcome immigration policy changes

Thursday 1 February 2024 | Written by Losirene Lacanivalu | Published in Economy, Local, National

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Chamber of Commerce and Tourism welcome immigration policy changes
Eve Hayden, the vice chair of the Chamber of Commerce.

The Cook Islands Chamber of Commerce welcomes the recent immigration policy changes, though some of their proposed revisions were not adopted.

Cabinet approved eight immigration policy changes that were initially proposed by the National Labour Advisory Board (NLAB) in September last year, after concerns were raised by the business community.

The concerns followed the implementation of the new Immigration Regulations of 2023.

Eve Hayden, the vice chair of the Chamber of Commerce, says they have been fully involved through its employers’ representatives on the NLAB on the issues with the Regulations for many months.

Following the discussions, the then acting principal immigration officer presented a proposed paper with amendments to NLAB in September 2023 which they endorsed. 

“There were some suggestions that we proposed that were not endorsed, but we are pleased nonetheless with the outcome now presented.”

The policy changes approved by the Cabinet last week include enabling foreign workers additional employment, waive any fees for 12 months on conditions for additional employment, enable applications for a one year International and Government visa and permit at a cost of $320 per application, no fees on any visitor class visa or permit extension that is 62 days or less, and enabling the continuation of a renewal fee of $60 per annum for a Resident Spouse visa and permit.

Also read: Cabinet approves eight Immigration policy changes

The Cabinet also approved a new one-year retiree visa and permit, the removal of mandatory breaks and limitations on permit renewals from the criteria (including the requirement to leave the Cooks for 1 month after 3 years of employment or 1 year after 6 years of employment), and a regulatory amendment to enable Australian passport holders to obtain a 90-day visitor visa and permit on arrival.

Hayden said the Cook Islands relies heavily on international workers to fill the many gaps left by departing Cook Islanders, and this increased post Covid-19.

She said there are still gaps which could be filled by secondary employment opportunities.

“The concern that workers have on paying secondary tax along with the difficulty of getting permission for secondary employment means that some international workers are working in secondary jobs, but informally.

A clear process on how secondary employment can be achieved legally is welcomed.”

While the fees for additional employment have been waived for 12 months, any fees may be a deterrent in the future, says Hayden.

Commenting on the visitor’s visa extension fee, Hayde said: “The current permit extension fees are excessive and there have been many negative comments made from tourists who have been coming here for years about that, and rightly so.”

Hayden also said that the Chamber highlighted many times prior to the Act and Regulations being passed that mandating a one-year break and putting limitations on permit renewals was unnecessary, costly, and prevented any international worker from ever being able to achieve permanent residency. 

The Chamber of Commerce also welcomed the news for a retiree visa and permit, but for better long term economic benefits, they would like to see no limitation on extensions.

Hayden stated that qualifying for the retiree visa will likely require providing evidence of a pension, medical insurance, and financial sustainability. With these requirements met, she sees no reason for the visa term to be limited to one year with a one-year extension.

She added that having no limitations on the visa tenure would further encourage investment in the Cook Islands.

Additionally, she commended the pro-rata approach to the three-year International and Government fees, stating that it allows contracts to be aligned with the visas without incurring financial penalties.

The Chamber also welcomed the amendment to allow Australian passport holders a 90-day visitor and permit on arrival, adding “with the volume of direct flights, we are seeing more and more Australians visit Cook Islands and it made sense to allow them the flexibility of longer term stays”. 

“The Chamber is looking forward to working with MFAI with respect to the digitisation project which would see applications and payments online. We are keen to ensure that before any go-live date, the system is tested and is fit for purpose for our business and wider community,” Hayden said.

“We look forward to analysing the policy document with the changes as soon as possible, so that we can continue our work in preventing as many barriers as possible to engage in business in the Cook Islands.”

Cook Islands Tourism Industry Council president Liana Scott said the confirmation of the recent announcement of the policy concessions could not come soon enough. 

She said: “For some businesses it has been a mind field working through the requirements. 

“We are aware that the Ministry is severely under-resourced, and given new policy changes, support for the roll out should be urgently considered.

Businesses rely on a quick turnaround of documents with an already long recruitment process.”