5. Labour opens doors to migrant builders

The Government plans to ramp up house building, but has conceded it will have to bring in more foreign workers to do so. Photo: John Sefton

The doors will be opened wider to overseas construction workers as the Government pushes to fulfil its ambitious building promises. Shane Cowlishaw reports.

A planned KiwiBuild visa to ensure there are enough workers to reach the target of 100,000 new houses will be replaced by a KiwiBuild Skills Shortages list.

This will streamline the process for employers to quickly hire workers from overseas to fill roles that can not be filled locally.

It will also grant accreditation to construction sector employers with good track records, again speeding up the hiring process and visa application wait times.

To address concerns about migrant exploitation any accredited company will have to sign up to certain conditions including minimum pay rates and pastoral care of workers.

With a worker shortfall of 30,000 predicted, the Government had little choice but to widen the foreign worker net.

A cabinet paper on the proposal, proactively released by Construction Minister Jenny Salesa, warned unless action was taken KiwiBuild could blow out in costs, or fail.

“Unless action is taken to improve construction workforce development (the supply of labour) and the sector’s approach to recruitment and development (the demand for labour), these issues will further increase the costs of, and risk the ability to deliver on, the Government’s construction and infrastructure projects.”

But the announcement also exposed the Government’s soft underbelly, opening it up to attacks from the Opposition.

It’s a stark turnaround from Labour’s pre-election stance that net immigration should drop by about 20,000 to 30,000 because the country needed to “take a breather”.

Since taking power it has announced a significantly weaker version of its clampdown on student visa settings than was proposed, with Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway claiming it was never a set goal to reduce the number of people coming in.

He has been helped by a flattening of immigration numbers, with the latest figures showing a 66,200 annual increase compared to a high of 72,400 a year earlier.

But the admission that more workers from overseas are needed clashes with the pre-election rhetoric and the announcement was also hindered by Housing Minister Phil Twyford’s claim in the house just a day earlier that “we are not planning on bringing workers in from overseas”.

It may have been a simple mistake, but Twyford squirmed under media questions about why he had made the comment and could only muster that he was responding to Judith Collins’ “patently ridiculous” line of questioning.

National leader Simon Bridges didn’t hold back in his criticism, stating the party had long insisted migrant workers would be needed, the new KiwiBuild skills shortage list was simply a rebranding of the current list and the whole policy was a shambles.

“Even as late as yesterday [Twyford] was saying he wasn’t going to do this then today he’s changed his tune.

“Either he didn’t know, in which case that’s porkies, or he did know, then clearly he’s out of his depth and incompetent.”

While the Government will welcome more overseas construction workers it has stressed the immigration settings are temporary and will be tightened again when the local workforce is boosted.

But the harsh reality is that enrolling in a trade is not an attractive proposition for young people, despite the earning potential often equal to or exceeding that of many university pathways.

Labour’s pre-election plan was for construction companies wanting to bring in extra foreign workers to commit to taking on apprentices as well.

But that has also been shelved, narrowed to companies wishing to take part in KiwiBuild.

This backtracking was also criticised, with the E tu union calling it a “watered-down solution”.

With attacks coming from all quarters the Government will be hoping to be able to point to tangible impacts from KiwiBuild sooner rather than later.

But it will also have to find somewhere for all the workers to live as they arrive to build houses the country is already short on - a fact lamented by Lees-Galloway.

“It is a wicked catch 22, we’ve been left that by the previous Government, it was a time bomb that was left by the previous Government and it’s our job to work through that now.”