State transport company KiwiRail has been accused of misusing public money in hiring foreign workers to fix asbestos-contaminated trains, instead of local staff.
The claim was made in a hearing before the Employment Relations Authority this morning.
It was argued that, since KiwiRail's staff already serviced 10 to 12 trains a week, they could have easily reconstructed the defective trains.
The issue arose when 40 of 48 locomotives bought from China National Rail (CNR) were found to have asbestos sprayed on metal sheeting in their engine rooms.
KiwiRail invoked a warranty, and the Chinese company sent workers to New Zealand to fix the trains.
Rail and Maritime Transport Union general secretary Wayne Butson told the hearing this was in breach of KiwiRail's collective agreement with the union, was a breach of good faith and even violated the company's social responsibilities under the State-Owned Enterprises Act.
Mr Butson told the hearing KiwiRail used the foreign workers to do the work without finding out how much they would be paid, or even paying much care to the matter.
He said using foreign workers was a breach of KiwiRail's responsibilities, and ditching local workers in favour of foreign ones was a misuse of public money.
"If a company funded by the taxpayer will not create jobs for New Zealanders, who will?" he asked.
But the counsel for KiwiRail, Peter Chemis, said not invoking the warranty and paying local staff to correct the error would have been the real misuse of taxpayer money.
NZ workers could have done job, hearing told
Evidence was presented to the hearing suggesting New Zealand workers could easily have done the job, which was similar to work they already did..
Paul Morrison is a senior mechanical engineer at the railway workshops in the Hutt Valley, north of Wellington. He told the hearing workers at the plant often renovated old locomotives, sometimes multiple times.
This could involve stripping the train down to its basics and refitting it so it could do another 1 million kilometres of service.
The work quite often involved the clearing of asbestos, which was done by specialist teams, Mr Morrison said.
Instead of using local staff for the asbestos-contaminated trains, the work was being done in a sealed-off section of the plant, where the foreign workers and a small number of New Zealand staff would be dealing with the problem until the end of August, he said.