As a luxury Auckland hotel nears its final stages of completion, New Zealanders are mulling over news that another local building project needs overseas labour to get the job done. Teuila Fuatai examines a more long-term approach to our building industry than that of fly-in workers. 

News that 200 Chinese workers are needed in Auckland to complete a luxury hotel build has thrust New Zealand’s trade and construction labour shortage back into the spotlight.

Caught on the spot over the story, the office of workplace relations and immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway told Newsroom yesterday afternoon that full details of the situation were still being sought.

According to Radio New Zealand, development company Fu Wah has applied for visas for 200 workers to finish the Park Hyatt Hotel at Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter. The company, which was approved to take on the waterfront build over two years ago, said the shortage in local labour meant workers from China would be required to meet the build’s deadline. Lees-Galloway, whose party campaigned on a policy of cutting immigration, said the 200 workers had not been immediately flagged with his office because the applications had been made in lots of 10.

While sharp comments from him and other Government MPs have continued to lay blame with their predecessors over the current skills shortage, as well as promote “Labour’s KiwiBuild and Exceptional Skills visas”, industry insiders are adamant that policies affecting the construction industry over the next three years remove any reliance on the use of short-term visas and fly-in workers.

Warwick Quinn, chief executive of the Building and Construction Industry Training organisation, said while the current skill shortage was a “hangover” from the global financial crisis, careful long-term planning and forecasting could help minimise, and even avoid, drastic shortfalls in the skilled labour pool for construction and the trades.

“Situations like Auckland [and its housing and infrastructure shortages] were well-known, and financed. And if you can plan the finance three years in advance, why can’t you plan for the labour?”

– Ron Angel, E-Tū construction industry coordinator

Situations like the Christchurch Earthquakes were not predictable, he said, however shortages in housing and infrastructure in Auckland — which can be broadly anticipated through forecasting of population — can provide crucial indicators on what kinds of skills and trades will be needed down the track.

For the construction industry, that forecasting needed to be related back to the number of people who would be required to fill vacancies in specific areas in the future so housing and infrastructure projects could be completed without heavy input from overseas workers.

“Construction is a very boom-bust industry, but there are things that we can do so when there is a recession, and we do suddenly need to respond so we are not caught behind the eight ball,” he said.

Furthermore, the make-up of businesses in the construction industry meant planning-based, macro-level strategies were particularly pertinent.

“About 91 percent of all firms in construction are made of five staff or less. About 60 percent or less have no staff… so it’s really difficult to regulate at a [individual] firm level the number of workers you need to have at a [national] strategic level.”

Quinn’s organisation, which had spoken to the Labour Party over a forward-looking policy approach prior to the September election, was due to meet with the Government in the next two weeks to discuss a possible unit within the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment that focused specifically on that for the construction industry.

“Immigration: in a perfect world, it’s a temporary safety valve. We don’t want it to be a competing pathway with local workers, and getting firms to train local workers,” Quinn said.

Ron Angel, construction industry coordinator for the E-Tū union, agreed with Quinn’s assessment of better planning around population growth, housing, infrastructure and jobs requirements.

“Situations like Auckland [and its housing and infrastructure shortages] were well-known, and financed,” Angel said.

“And if you can plan the finance three years in advance, why can’t you plan for the labour?”

Angel, whose union’s construction worker membership fluctuates between 1200 and 1500, also highlighted a two-pronged problem often associated with working in Auckland.

The high living cost in the city, alongside the often uncertain work landscape of the construction industry — where labour-hire, contracting, and labour-only arrangements  were common — has created real barriers to working in Auckland in the construction industry, Angel said.

The Minister for Building and Construction Jenny Salesa said a ministerial group on the construction workforce was being established.

The group would seek advice from key industry stakeholders on options targeted at increasing capacity and capability in the sector, Salesa said.

“We know there is an immediate need for skilled workers in New Zealand, but we are also looking to the future to provide skilled construction workers.”

Read more: Labour wins on immigration

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