While Kiwis stay at home to stop the spread of Covid-19, one worker says engineering staff are being asked to carry out ‘essential’ maintenance on a Navy vessel which won’t hit the sea for months

Engineering staff providing maintenance for a Navy ship set to be off the water for months have questioned why they are being asked to work as New Zealand stays in hard lockdown.

Defence engineering services company Babcock NZ runs New Zealand’s largest marine engineering and maintenance support facility out of the NZ Defence Force’s naval base in Devonport.

As part of a seven-year, $300 million contract Babcock signed with the NZDF in 2015, it provides maintenance for the country’s naval fleet  – including the HMNZS Manawanui, a diving support and hydrographic vessel.

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A worker involved with the Manawanui project, who spoke to Newsroom on condition of confidentiality, said Babcock and the NZ Defence Force had initially indicated the only work at Alert Level 4 would be for ships already in the water, and which needed minor defects fixed before they could take to sea.

However, staff were then asked to carry out some maintenance work on the Manawanui, even though the worker said it was likely to be off the water and in dry dock for the next six to eight months.

He questioned whether the work could be regarded as essential maintenance given that timeframe, and the fact the company had told staff the work was not important enough to justify overtime in recent months.

“The work that they’re asking people to do … there is no way that the guys can work safely two metres apart, they’ll be shoulder to shoulder.”
– Defence worker

An added concern was the fact only a few workers had been able to get vaccinated against Covid-19, he said.

“The work that they’re asking people to do … there is no way that the guys can work safely two metres apart, they’ll be shoulder to shoulder.”

When maintenance work on Navy vessels had taken place during previous lockdowns, there had been little to no use of sanitiser, masks and other PPE, while physical distancing had also been minimal.

Staff had been trying for some time to get written confirmation from the Government that they were deemed essential workers, but with no success, the worker said.

He questioned whether financial considerations were a factor in staff being asked to work at Level 4, with overseas specialists currently in the country to assess and guarantee some of the assembly work and a lengthened stay likely to cost more.

While staff had initially been told they would be required to work on the Manawanui, that approach had softened to asking for volunteers since Newsroom began making enquiries over the weekend, the worker said.

While maintenance services are on the list of businesses allowed to operate at Level 4, the work must be either to address immediate risks to health and safety, or for nationally important infrastructure. Government defence services can also be carried out, but only if “provision of the service cannot reasonably be delayed (for example, because a delay would breach an obligation under an enactment, risk harm to people or communities, or risk damage to the environment)”.

‘Large amount’ of Manawanui work postponed – NZDF

NZDF maritime component commander, Commodore Mat Williams, told Newsroom the work on the Manawanui was needed so the military maintained its capability options to respond to any events in future.

“Asking Babcock New Zealand to complete essential maintenance under strict Covid-19 safety guidelines will ensure our Navy is able to support national interests during the global pandemic.”

Williams said all non-essential maintenance activity, including a large amount on the Manawanui, had been postponed under Alert Level 4,  but work was needed on the ship’s propulsion and power generation systems, “both of which are critical for operations”.

“Delaying the work would impact the availability of the ship. This work does require the support of specialist international engineers, and the decision to carry out work is solely related to ensuring the availability of the ship at this critical time.”

Williams said all maintenance work on the ship would take place under “strict safety measures in line with government guidelines”, and the vessel was expected to be operational by November.

In a written statement provided through the NZDF, a Babcock NZ spokesperson said the company’s priority was the safety and wellbeing of its staff, and all employees who could work from home were doing so.

“Only a small number of essential workers are onsite to deliver critical support to the NZDF under strict Covid-19 safety guidelines. All work deemed non-essential has been postponed under Alert Level 4.”

A spokesman for the E tū union, which represents some Babcock NZ workers, said it was aware that some limited maintenance work is being carried out during lockdown and was working with its members “to ensure that the work being carried out is indeed essential and that it is able to be done safely, in compliance with Alert Level 4 rules”.

“While discussions are ongoing, we have not been made aware of any immediate cause for concern. We understand that the work being carried out is very limited and all workers have the option of staying home on full wages if they choose to.”

*10.18am, Tuesday 24 August: This story has been updated with some additional comment from the NZDF on the precise nature of the maintenance work being carried out, and a more specific timeline for when the ship will be back in service.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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