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Cowboys ‘raided’ by investigators

There’s a new class of tradesmen cropping up in Auckland — fix-it men.

No, not handymen who do odd jobs around the house — tradesmen who fix mistakes by the “cowboys” originally hired to do a professional job.  

Jayson Thomas is manager of the investigative team for the Plumbers, Gasfitters and Drainlayers Board (PGDB).

A former policeman with nine years’ experience with the CIB, he now heads a small staff of six investigators and technical advisers.

What do they investigate? Shoddy work performed by tradesmen who are not licensed — popularly known as cowboys — and work done by inexperienced tradesmen who are supposed to be supervised when working on a project — but often aren’t.

They also check up on tradesmen who were once licensed but have let it lapse.

It’s in this context that Mr Thomas and his investigators have noticed a new trend in Auckland — a thriving industry which has sprung out of the fact many cowboys are botching jobs luckless home owners have paid for and then have to pay out again to fix them.

“I have spoken to people who recently have ceased to do any commercial work themselves. Instead, they just do maintenance work — but what that really means is they follow the people who are doing the original work and do fix-ups.


Flat out fixing other people’s shoddy work

“For one of the guys I spoke to, that was his entire business — fixing other people’s shoddy work — and he was absolutely flat out.

“It is one measure of just how many cowboys there are out there these days.”

The main reason for this increase in the cowboy population is the building boom in areas such as Auckland and Queenstown, and other parts of the South Island.

“It’s a buoyant construction market, and some people see a chance to make easy money,” Mr Thomas says.

PGDB chief executive Martin Sawyers says earthquake zones had been a target.

“After the Christchurch earthquakes in 2010 and 2011, there were instances of people offering plumbing services when untrained and unlicensed — and we issued a warning to that end when the Kaikoura quake happened,” Mr Sawyer says.

Now, numbers of cowboys being detected and prosecuted are rising “because we are getting better [at detecting them].”

Mr Thomas says a key tool is the Report A Cowboy (RAC) app launched last year, downloadable from the PGDB web site.

There are no figures available to compare from previous years, but 126 complaints were laid over the app last year and 15 so far this year, with more than 10,000 downloads of the app. Just under half the complaints involved allegedly unauthorised plumbers.

“Even if the information we receive through the app and other methods does not lead to a prosecution, it is an excellent intelligence-gathering tool. It allows us to put a picture together involving a firm or an individual,” Mr Thomas says.

He and his investigators can then “raid” projects where they have heard unlicensed operators may be carrying out illegal work.

Mr Thomas doesn’t like to call such surprise visits “raids” as he says they are generally low-key affairs.

However, the investigators’ work has enabled them to recognise a building sector under pressure, taking short cuts and sometimes exploiting workers.

“No one is making any excuses — plumbing, gasfitting and drainlaying has to be done by trained and licensed professionals for very good reasons,” he says.

“But everyone in the building sector is feeling the pressure, particularly in Auckland and Queenstown, to build more and more. That creates a strong demand for contractors.”

Unlicensed workers

What happens next can cause problems. Mr Thomas says some contractors hire unlicensed workers or gain an exemption to have unlicensed workers operating under the close supervision of a licensed tradesman.

In reality, the tradesman will often be away at another site because of the pressure of business — leaving behind unlicensed workers who Mr Thomas says don’t know what they are doing and who sometimes cause “absolute bedlam”.

The worst case he has seen so far was in Christchurch where a drainlaying job went badly wrong.

The workers had over-excavated the site, meaning the home owners couldn’t lay the tar-sealed driveway they wanted but, instead, had to pay out for a much more expensive reinforced concrete drive.

Even worse, the work meant the home owners couldn’t use their shower or toilet.

The tradesman told the owners to use the neighbour’s (instead of connecting up the drains every night when work finished) — but the neighbours were similarly unable to use their toilet.    

“There was a part-timer and a first-year apprentice in charge of the job — the main guy spent most of his time at another site.

“This job was so bad that the tradies brought in to fix things originally said they didn’t want to touch it,” Mr Thomas says.


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