The Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China, due for implementation on 1 October this year, makes it easier for skilled Chinese nationals to work in New Zealand on a temporary basis.
This could ease the still-tight domestic job market — but the construction industry does not share in this bounty.
In terms of one of the FTA provisions, a maximum of 1000 skilled Chinese workers at any one time may be granted temporary employment for up to three years in specified occupations where New Zealand has a skills shortage.
According to Richard Trow, press secretary for Minister of Trade Phil Goff, the 20 industries that stand to gain under the FTA exclude building and construction.
Howevere, the FTA with China did spark renewed debate in the construction industry concerning safety issues surrounding migrant workers who speak English as a second language (ESOL).
Some experts say ESOL migrant workers often face huge challenges in industries where safety concerns are paramount. This is because many ESOL migrant workers sometimes struggle to speak and understand English, and to understand the English alphabet and numerical representation system.
Registered Master Builders Federation chief executive Pieter Burghout says in the past ESOL migrants entering the New Zealand construction industry have presented two sides.
“One the one hand, the construction industry is crying out for skilled workers. We are struggling, and finding suitably skilled workers is critical.
“On the other hand, it’s a challenge to integrate workers from the Chinese training system. In some cases there are on-site integration issues — for example, our research shows ESOL staff could complicate safety issues.
“It’s also important to ensure migrant workers’ qualifications match domestic Standards requirements.
“However, I know of many builders using foreign-trained skilled ESOL staff, such as tiling, painting and gib stopping teams. These teams have made an excellent contribution in the industry.”
Building Trades Union national secretary David O’Connell is worried not only about safety issues, but also about a fair deal for all workers in New Zealand.
“It’s a known fact that the construction industry is slowing down, and a lot of projects are stalled. There might have been a skills shortage, but we’re seeing a small trickle of redundancies, and things may well go the other way.
“The problem is, often ESOL migrants work for compatriots and do not understand the New Zealand system. We have no clue of what they’re paid, how they’re treated and the hours they work.
Concern for unions
“We’ve seen that in the hospitality industry. This, as well as safety, is a concern for unions.”
He says in his experience foreign-trained ESOL workers such as tilers and plasterers are highly skilled, but many ESOL migrants in the construction sector have working methods and ethics that often differ from those in New Zealand.
“Kiwis build differently, to different standards. For example, we’re much more aware of the damage earthquakes and floods can do, and plan and prepare for such eventualities.”
Site Safe executive director Iris Clanachan says Site Safe welcomes ESOL migrant workers entering the industry, but agrees safety issues are a concern.
“With ESOL migrant workers, understanding and speaking English, and English literacy and numeracy issues all challenge safety on site.
“In addition, many ESOL migrant workers’ safety culture is different from the one in New Zealand. We will have to educate the workers, and that will not happen overnight,” she says.
But it can be done. Ms Clanachan says around 86,000 New Zealand construction workers have attained a common health and safety standard by completing Site Safe’s Building Construction Passport course. A number of these workers are foreign trained. The Passport must be renewed biennially.
Many large main contractors also make the Passport a standard of tendering for contracts, and for entry to their sites. To train ESOL workers, the course material is available in eight languages.
“In the interests of safety and productivity, I believe all domestic construction companies should make the Site Safe Passport mandatory for all workers,” she says.
A second way of addressing the issue would be to ensure ESOL migrant workers have an experienced supervisor who is fully capable in the migrants’ language, as well as in English.
Ms Clanachan says in the recent tight job market, construction people were paid more than the minimum wage. “But now we’re in a somewhat looser market many contractors and subcontractors find their businesses compromised, and there’s the temptation to go back to a lowest tender mentality.
“That may mean undercutting prices and paying workers less than the going rate, something migrant workers are vulnerable to. This has a clear safety implication,” she says.
She also recommends that safety inspectors step up site visits to ensure safe working practices and environments.
BCITO chief executive Ruma Karaitiana says it is true ESOL migrant workers who use different alphabets and numeral representation systems have learning difficulties with English material.
“So do some Kiwis. We’ve found material designed specifically for English-speaking learners who struggle with literacy and numeracy works just as well for ESOL people too.”
Building and Construction Minister Shane Jones, who also holds the Associate Minister for Immigration portfolio, says skilled workers face a rigorous screening process when applying for work permits.
“There’s no way we will endanger the integrity of our immigration laws,” he says. “We’re not about to open the door and take in half-baked immigrant workers, but we try to let in skilled people with minimum fuss. We must never underestimate how emotional a country’s immigration policy can make people.
“Firms sponsoring migrants have an obligation to ensure they are up to scratch, and the employer will be held responsible if they are not. And at the same time we must ensure new workers can live here, and absorb the Kiwi culture. Everybody who works here must abide by our labour laws,” Mr Jones says.
“I’m aware of urban myths of work gangs, but people who do not abide by our rules lose their immigration status. I see many people sent out of the country for breaking our rules.
“But in this, as in everything else, there will always be a criminal element who will try to circumvent our laws — so much depends on people’s ethics.”
Alongside the FTA, New Zealand now also has a working holiday scheme with China. The scheme allows 1000 young, well-educated Chinese per year a one-year open work visa to engage in incidental, or casual employment in any sector, in New Zealand.
The youngsters may not work for any one employer for more than three months — and if the construction industry is quick, there may be something in it in this particular category.
Bright Spark(ie)s are welcome everywhere
Building Today posed the following questions to the Ministry of Trade, who passed on the answers it obtained from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Labour.
Q: Do FTA category migrants apply for jobs and the screening of their qualifications and experience, health and character, in China, or can they come here, find a job and then continue with the process?
A: Applications for entry under the China FTA skilled worker scheme need to be lodged in China with Immigration New Zealand (branches are in Beijing and Shanghai).
Q: Who checks qualifications and experience, health and character, and that job offers are genuine, including having New Zealand-standard terms and conditions?
A: Immigration New Zealand, which is part of the New Zealand Department of Labour, carries out these checks.
Q: Will the current English test be used? Does the test check if the workers can use occupational English and read and understand complex diagrams with English numbers?
A: The English level requirements depend upon the registration requirements of each occupation covered by the China FTA skilled worker scheme — where registration requirements exist — and an employer’s assessment that the worker is competent for the needs of the job.
There is no overriding English test for temporary workers (unlike permanent entrants). However, under the working holiday scheme, applicants must have functional English — which can be evidenced through an IELTS test which shows an average score of 4.5 over four components of the test.
Q: Can the FTA temporary work permit be converted to a standard work permit or work to residence permit and then to a PR permit?
A: Yes, if they meet the relevant policy requirements.
Q: Must migrant workers get another new permit if they change jobs?
A: While workers can apply to stay in New Zealand (either temporarily because they have a found another job or for residence if they meet the requirements of a residence policy), if they leave the job which enabled them to qualify under a policy arising from the China FTA, they would need to apply for a new permit, as it would be a condition of the initial permit that they remain in the job that was the basis for approval under that policy.
Q: How do you ensure once they have a job offer, they adhere to New Zealand policies in terms of wages, work hours and safety?
A: Employers offering jobs to non-New Zealand citizens and workers must comply with all relevant employment and immigration law in force in New Zealand. Additionally, to ensure that the objectives of work visa and permit policy are met, employers can be required to provide evidence that the rate of pay offered to non-New Zealand citizens or resident workers is not less than the market rate for New Zealand workers in that occupation.
Q: Must electricians and plumbers register with their Boards before they can work in New Zealand?
A: Yes, electricians and plumbers are required to have New Zealand Registration.
Q: Why only electricians and plumbers? Will the skills shortage list be updated regularly so that we do not develop a glut of skills?
A: The list of 20 sectors in which skilled workers can apply to work will be reviewed by the two countries every five years.
Q: Do employers retain the right to appoint the migrant worker of their choice?
A: Yes, there is no requirement that (for example) China FTA workers be prioritised over any other foreign worker.
Q: Explain the three-year condition?
A: Applicants under the skilled worker FTA commitments can work in New Zealand for up to three years, but are then required to be outside for three years before applying for further entry under the same policy.
Q: How does this differ from the policy for non-FTA migrants?
A: Work visas for entry into New Zealand under the general immigration policy are issued for the duration of the employment contract up to a maximum of three years, or for shorter periods of time if, for example, Immigration New Zealand thinks New Zealand workers are likely to become available in the medium term.
It is also possible for further work permits to be granted for further periods of work.