‘Waiting on the world’ for infrastructure workers

ANALYSIS: A list of infrastructure projects handpicked for border exemptions is either a hasty cut and paste job or a sign we can't build anything without foreign labour, writes Dileepa Fonseka

Sixty-one major infrastructure projects have been pre-approved for exemptions to bring foreign workers through our tightly quarantined border, but if it's taken at face value it is a worrying sign we won't be able to build much until that border re-opens.

The list includes basic things some say we should be able to build onshore including "low cost low risk road improvements across New Zealand", all "investment in Horizontal Infrastructure", and the maintenance of Hamilton's transport network.

Other projects on the list (part of a tight list of exemptions due to quarantine constraints) have infrastructure experts scratching their heads.

They included projects without any plans attached to them like light rail in Auckland (which is on hold) or a "New Aircraft Apron" (the location of which has not been provided to anyone looking to apply for an exemption for it).

"If that turned out to be the case I'd be incredibly concerned because it means New Zealand is waiting for the world to assist us in the most basic infrastructure needs."

Key infrastructure initiatives have not been mentioned anywhere despite well known specialist requirements or having already employed a large foreign workforce.

Auckland City Rail Link isn't on it despite having a tunnelling machine that requires specialist workers. Transmission Gully wasn't either, despite one-quarter of the project's workforce having been locked out of the country during lockdown.

Infometrics economist Brad Olsen said he would be worried if the list was a genuine list of infrastructure projects in need of foreign labour or skills.

"If that turned out to be the case I'd be incredibly concerned because it means New Zealand is waiting for the world to assist us in the most basic infrastructure needs."

Road Transport Forum chief executive Nick Leggett thought that was exactly what the list meant.

"We've got to stimulate the economy. We've got to get these infrastructure projects built and the reality is we've got to import labour."

He said taken at face value the list had major implications for how fast shovels would go in the ground on billions of dollars worth of infrastructure spending.

"Clearly we don't have the expertise in town so we have to import it."

"We've got to stimulate the economy. We've got to get these infrastructure projects built and the reality is we've got to import labour."

Foreign workers aren't automatically approved for a border exception if they're attached to one of these projects. Their employer must explain "the role(s) that the worker(s) would be undertaking and why each role is essential to the business" in a 200-word box attached to an online form. This is then assessed by Immigration officers in consultation with other departments.

Being determined as essential to one of these projects exempts foreigners from a requirement that they earn over $106,080 per year to be let through the border.

Leggett said Government departments didn't have the engineering nous to determine which workers were genuinely critical to infrastructure projects and which weren't.

"Most Government agencies and departments have lost their engineering capability."

The long list of projects has also being taken as a slap in the face by temporary migrants who have been calling for the border to open up so that they can return to their jobs after a 14-day quarantine at the border. 

Migrant Workers Association president Anu Kaloti said the list showed calls to put "Kiwi workers first" were a vote-grabbing exercise rather than a realistic demand.

"New Zealand has been and will continue to be heavily reliant on migrant workers and as such this list contains all sorts of projects."

'Any Government list will be incomplete'

Nobody seems to know why this list of infrastructure projects eligible for border exemptions looks the way it does. 

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway first pointed to Economic Development Minister Phil Twyford as the architect behind it. However neither Twyford nor members of his office had seen the list before.

The list required sign-off by Lees-Galloway but wasn't developed by Immigration NZ.

Its still as-yet undetermined origins lie somewhere within the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (at the time of publication MBIE had not responded to requests for details on how the list came to be).

Amalgamated Workers Union national secretary Maurice Davis said the list should have mentioned what specific roles were eligible for a border exception. That would have allowed unions like his to independently test those jobs against domestic labour demand.

New Zealand Initiative chairman Roger Partridge has advocated for the country to strongly increase its quarantine capacity as a way of reviving the economy.

He said if quarantine capacity really could not be increased then it would be better to preserve some places for compassionate cases (like returning migrants) then auction off the remainder rather than trying to come up with a comprehensive list of worthy infrastructure projects.

"Any list that is prepared by the Government is going to be incomplete because it's [only] going to identify the projects they know about."

"Which is why I suggested that if we've got a limited number of licences to enter then the best way of ensuring that we get economic to auction them off."

"The Government can't possibly know all of the needs of the economy...or where the economy is going to get the biggest bang for its buck."

The list of approved major infrastructure projects on Friday July, 3:

  • New Dunedin Hospital Campus - Southern DHB
  • City Centre to Mangere Light Rail Auckland
  • Central Interceptor Programme - Western Springs to Mangere
  • Mill Road - Northern Southern and Papakura Sections
  • Elective Capacity and Inpatient Beds and Supporting Infrastructure - Waitemata DHB
  • Capability of Airfield Infrastructure
  • Investment in Horizontal Infrastructure
  • Redevelopment of Scott Base - Antarctica
  • Auckland Metro Rail Network Programme - Accelerated Renewals
  • North Auckland Line - Northland
  • Rolling Stock Procurement Project - Stage 1 - Wagon Fleet
  • Wellington Metro Rail Network Programme - Stage 4 - Network Capacity Improvements
  • Manawatu Road Maintenance Programme
  • Laboratory and Biocontainment Greenhouse New Build and Relocation - Tamaki
  • Low Cost Low Risk Road Improvements across New Zealand
  • Totara Road Wastewater Treatment Plant Consent Renewal Upgrade
  • Adams Building Replacement Build and Precinct Enabler
  • Dental School Redevelopment
  • University of Otago - Christchurch Health Science Campus Redevelopment - Stage 1
  • Construction of New Gravity Tunnel - Whenuapai and Redhills
  • Huia 1 and Nihotupu 1 Watermain Replacement
  • New Watermain Connecting Woodlands Park Reservoirs to Greenhithe Bridge
  • Pump Station and Rising Main Upgrade - Stanmore
  • Upgrade of Huia Water Treatment Plant
  • Upgrade of the Waiuku Wastewater Treatment Plant and Wastewater Servicing to Clarks Beach
  • Wastewater Treatment Plant Reactor/Clarifiers and Ultra Violet Expansion - Rosedale
  • Wastewater Treatment Plant Upgrade - Pukekohe
  • Cross Harbour Pipeline Construction - Wellington Eastern Suburbs to Waterloo
  • Peacocke River Bridge and Northern Arterials Construction - Hamilton
  • Hamilton Transport Network Renewals and Maintenance
  • Drury Rail Station Development
  • Wastewater Treatment Plant Membrane Bio-Reactor Upgrade - Waiuku
  • Wellington Metro Rail Network Programme - Stage 6 - Infrastructure Upgrades
  • Wellington Metro Rail Network Programme - Stage 7 - Automated Train Protection
  • New Aircraft Apron
  • Marine Defences and Seawall Reconstruction
  • Whau Recreation Centre - New Recreation Centre
  • Facilities Infrastructure Remediation Programme - Stage 1 - Auckland DHB
  • SH1 Improvements - Papakura to Bombay
  • Modular Prison Build Programme - Stage 2
  • Auckland Metro Rail Network Programme - Wiri to Quay Park Capacity Enhancements
  • Auckland Metro Rail Network Programme - Papakura to Pukekohe Electrification
  • High Voltage Direct Current Cable Replacement and Capacity Increase - Cook Strait
  • Voltage Management - Waikato and Upper North Island
  • Taranaki Base Hospital Redevelopment - Project Maunga - Stage 2 - Taranaki DHB
  • State Highway Improvements - SH1 Papakura to Drury South
  • Tauranga Northern Link
  • Walking and Cycling Facilities - Northern Pathway including Seapath
  • Penlink Road
  • SH2 Te Puna to Omokoroa Improvements
  • Melling Interchange Improvements
  • New Domestic and International Jet Terminal
  • New State Highway Construction - Te Ahu a Turanga: Manawatu Tararua Highway
  • Waikeria Prison Build
  • Interisland Ferry Replacement Project - Wellington and Picton
  • Main North Line Reinstatement Project - Christchurch to Picton
  • SH1 Whangarei to Port Marsden Upgrade
  • SH1 Otaki to North Levin Improvements
  • Rolling Stock Procurement Project - Stage 2 - Locomotives
  • Rolling Stock Procurement Project - Stage 2 - Wagons

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