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Trade and Migration to New Zealand - WP 04/18

4  Evidence on the activities of migrants in New Zealand

Case studies in many countries show that “immigrants typically have found trading activities an accessible niche to fill in the labor market” (Gould 1994: 302), which is to be expected if migrants enjoy a transaction cost advantage. There is some survey evidence that migrants to New Zealand also use their backgrounds to facilitate international trade, as employees or as business owners.

Watts and Trlin (1999) sent questionnaires to 460 companies that they identified as being involved in foreign markets, and received replies from 187 (41%). Of these firms, 70% employed migrants from non-English speaking countries. Some, but not all, of the firms that employed migrants from non-English speaking countries used their employees’ linguistic skills and local knowledge. For instance, 58% used migrant employees for “assisting clients visiting NZ” and 42% for “translating documents”; 29% “indicated that they made use of the overseas contacts and networks of their employees” (Watts and Trlin 1999: 123-5).

Watts and Trlin also sent questionnaires to 156 immigrants from non-English speaking countries. Usable replies were received from 52 people (33%). Of the 52 people who replied, 41 were employed. Of these, 14 said that their cultural backgrounds were “relevant to their work activities” and seven “reported use of their business connections in their employment”. Over three-quarters of immigrants surveyed “were strongly of the opinion that their native-speaker skills in languages other than English and their cultural background could be used to better advantage in New Zealand”. Some respondents stated that their skills were under-used because of prejudice and discrimination (Watts and Trlin 1999: 124-8).

In 2002, the New Zealand Immigration Service surveyed Long-Term Business Visa and Investment Category migrants whose applications had been approved in 1999 and 2000 (New Zealand Immigration Service 2002). The Immigration Service attempted to locate 823 people, but made contact with only 84. Of the 59 businesses run by Long-Term Business Visa migrants, 43% were involved in importing, and 33% in exporting.[5] Thirteen out of 25 Investment Category migrants owned businesses. One of these businesses was involved in importing and five in exporting. The report states that “in most cases, investors were exporting to their country of birth” (New Zealand Immigration Service 2002: 106).

The low response rates and small sample sizes of these surveys mean that their results need to be treated cautiously. They do, nevertheless, suggest that the transaction cost theory, and the images of migrants involving themselves in international trade, have some empirical grounding.


  • [5]Calculated from data given in (New Zealand Immigration Service 2002: Tables 8.18, 8.19).  The calculations exclude the 11 businesses for which information on importing is not available, and the 12 for which information on exporting is not available.
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