Govt backtracks on plan to force apprentices on construction firms wanting migrant labour

The government would introduce accreditation for labour hire companies to manage the risk of worker exploitation. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The government has backtracked on a requirement for construction companies wanting to bring in extra foreign workers to have to take on apprentices too.

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway today announced measures he says will make it easier for the building industry to employ workers from overseas. He estimates there is a 30,000-worker shortfall across the construction sector, and demand is growing fast.

Lees-Galloway has introduced two new measures he says will help ease skills shortages in the construction sector:

  • A KiwiBuild skills shortage list, with a speeded-up process to fill specific roles, much like the Canterbury skills shortage list introduced during the rebuild;

  • An employer accreditation or alternative pre-approval model allowing companies with good work practices to get visas for foreign workers more quickly and easily.

He also said the government would introduce accreditation for labour hire companies to manage the risk of worker exploitation.

But gone is Labour’s pre-election plan to force employers to train local one local apprentice as a quid pro quo for each foreign worker they bring in.

Instead, Lees-Galloway told BusinessDesk the government will be using KiwiBuild procurement processes to make sure construction companies take on apprentices too.

“One of the criteria for companies wanting to engage with KiwiBuild is demonstrating that training opportunities and apprenticeships are available and that people are getting those apprenticeships.

"We need an agile response, so in the short term we will be more reliant on migrant labour."

But critics say that’s a watered-down solution because instead of forcing every construction company that wants to bring in overseas workers to engage in training, it’s limited to companies which take KiwiBuild contracts

“It isn’t good enough,” Ron Angel, construction industry coordinator for the E tū union told BusinessDesk. “Using overseas labour isn’t a long term solution. If companies are going to bring in migrant workers, they have to have a commitment to training local workers as well."

Angel said his experience with the Canterbury rebuild is that employers wanting to bring in migrant workers said they would train locals, but they didn’t. They just didn’t get around to it.

“If all those companies over the years of the rebuild had actually trained up apprentices, we’d have hundreds more people in the industry by now.”

Lees-Galloway said feedback from the construction sector about the KiwiBuild Visa scheme was it wasn’t going to provide enough skilled workers quickly enough.

“We became concerned that if we were too prescriptive, we might create disincentives for people to use the scheme. But in the longer term, through our broader construction workforce strategy, we believe we can get the same outcome."

The immigration minister is working with Building and Construction Minister Jenny Salesa, whose construction skills action plan does contain strategies around training, including the “dole for apprenticeships” scheme which was also in the pre-election Labour manifesto.

Salesa said she will look for engagement with the construction sector on the action plan, starting tomorrow and finishing on July 17.

Meanwhile, Lees-Galloway said the KiwiBuild skills shortages list could be in place around the end of the year.

“This is a broader, more comprehensive and quicker approach for the construction sector to get the skilled workers it needs than the KiwiBuild Visa,” he said.