Foreign Workers Flock to Christchurch Rebuild

Foreign Workers Flock to Christchurch Rebuild

As the Christchurch rebuild draws workers from around the world, the city’s demographics as well as its buildings look set to change.

Since the February 2011 earthquake brought destruction to Christchurch and subsequent demolitions further denuded the city of buildings, construction companies have sought skilled tradespeople wherever they can find them to help rebuild the city. Increasingly, that means looking overseas.

Figures released by Statistics New Zealand show a net inflow of international migrants to the Canterbury region since the second half of 2012. In the last six months, four thousand people have moved to the region, an average of 25 people per day. Many of Christchurch’s new residents are now coming from overseas. While some visas require employers to search for Kiwi workers before recruiting from overseas, other workers may come to the city on working holiday visas to take up jobs in the reconstruction effort.

Of these, Canterbury Employers’ Chamber of Commerce settlement support coordinator Lana Hart says Filipino workers recently outstripped British and Irish workers as the city’s number one source of new migrant labour. Last week, New Zealand construction company Arrow International signed a deal with the China State Construction Engineering Corporation (CSCEC). The CSCEC will supply steel and workers for major building projects on which Arrow may bid, such as Christchurch’s new stadium.

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse says that “there is no doubt in my mind that the rebuild is going to require a significant number of migrant labourers,” and predicts that as many as 17,000 of the 35,000 workers needed in the rebuild may come from overseas. Christchurch currently has a workforce of 20,000. Woodhouse believes the city will become “a pretty cosmopolitan place probably for the next 15 years.”

Rex Gibson of the Christchurch Migrant Centre has been involved in welcoming over 400 migrant workers from 12 different countries so far. He says foreign workers can do relatively well in Christchurch. Their focus on living cheaply and saving money to take home was particularly advantageous, especially when it came to accommodation. “We’ve been able to accommodate them a bit like a Castle Street flat – you can put six people in a house, whereas if they were tradespeople from New Zealand, for six people we’d have to find six houses, and that’s just not available in Christchurch at the moment.” In some cases, larger employers had refurbished old forestry lodges to house their employees and hired cooks from the workers’ country of origin to provide a taste of home.

Filipino workers have also been particularly eager to work on the rebuild. Some ten percent of the Philippines’ population lives overseas, and their remittances contribute 13.5% of that country’s GDP. Leigh’s Construction reported that 400 workers applied in Manila for the 20 vacancies it advertised there. Gibson said the reason for that was clear: “you’re looking at the money being worth at least six times that much back home.” Filipino builder Abel Oaferina told TVNZ that New Zealand wages were a welcome change from the $2 per hour he received at home.

For most workers, the experience of coming to Christchurch has been overwhelmingly positive. Patrick O’Connor, Director of the Pasifika Education and Employment Training Organisation (PEETO) in Christchurch told Critic that “they’re loving it. New Zealanders are pretty hospitable and a lot of employers are taking it upon themselves to facilitate smooth integration.” Community groups have benefited from the presence of foreign workers. Churches have seen their pews replenished, sports teams have gained new members and choirs are being filled with new singers.

However, moving to work in Christchurch’s construction projects has not been problem-free for everyone. Some Filipino migrants have revealed that immigration agencies have charged them exorbitant fees, with some workers’ families having to lend large sums of money to cover their costs. O’Connor said he had heard of some workers taking out loans from their families to cover visa application costs and agents’ fees. PEETO encouraged workers to join unions to protect their employment rights.

Cultural misunderstandings have also caused problems for some workers. Gibson told Critic that some migrant workers “don’t actually confront their supervisor because in their culture you show respect ahead of all other things.” One supervisor had cut Internet access to the workers’ accommodation at 9pm to ensure that they were up early for work, despite time zone differences which made late nights the optimal time to Skype their families. While this incident was easily resolved by the Migrants’ Centre, such problems could become more numerous as the world’s workers come to Christchurch.

Mayoral candidate and Labour MP Lianne Dalziel also worries that foreign workers may be exploited by their employers. She told Critic that she was concerned about foreign workers being “ripped off” by their bosses in the absence of government oversight. “Their wages will be undercut and it won’t be seen by the Department of Labour.” Labour’s immigration spokesperson Darien Fenton has also warned that the Government’s recent crackdown on employers of seasonal migrant workers will be pointless unless the government increases the number of labour inspectors from the 35 currently employed by the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment.

Some have suggested that immigration and labour laws should not be enforced while Christchurch remains a construction site. Former Reserve Bank governor and former ACT Party leader Don Brash has responded to reports of illegal immigrants working in Christchurch by calling on the government to issue such workers with visas. “If the government were more concerned about speeding up the rebuild, instead of hunting people who are helping with that rebuild, they’d be doing the citizens of Christchurch a great favour,” Brash remarked. Patrick O’Connor slammed such suggestions. He told Critic “there are refugees and migrants who can’t gain work, so if they see illegal migrants coming here, the implications for race relations are not very positive.”

The issue of representation for non-resident workers may also arise in coming years. Dalziel admitted that “this rebuild isn’t going to happen in two years.” When quizzed by Critic on the possibility of thousands of migrants having no voting rights for Christchurch City Council and General Elections, Dalziel said no changes to representation were possible under the law. However, Dalziel said she was committed to “active engagement” of “community organisations already at work,” such as the Philippine Society, and had already met with “a number of … ethnic groups” in preparation for her mayoral run.

As Christchurch becomes one of the world’s largest building sites, migrants look set to become an important part of the Garden City. How this new wave of migration will affect the city’s future remains unclear.
This article first appeared in Issue 17, 2013.
Posted 4:45pm Sunday 28th July 2013 by Jack Montgomerie.