31 May 2017

China 'has expertise' to solve Auckland transport woes

9:21 am on 31 May 2017

Chinese labour could be the answer to Auckland's transport problems, the leader of a delegation of New Zealand engineers in Beijing says, but there could still be issues over labour laws.

A road works sign

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

People from engineering firms Beca and Aurecon, and Auckland Transport and Transpower, are in the week-long delegation to three Chinese cities as part of a big push to get Chinese companies to build infrastructure here.

Delegation head Warren Hills, who worked in China for two decades and is now business development manager for Babbage Consultants, said New Zealand's infrastructure problems and construction labour shortages could be resolved by allowing China to bring in skilled workers.

"There are four SOEs that are dedicated to placing skilled construction workers on projects in different parts of the world ... the China model is quite interesting cos that's their job [to work overseas].

"China could solve the Auckland transport problem - they have the expertise."

But he said New Zealand lacked a model to allow such workers in, and also lacked clear labour laws around this.

"There's still a lot of grey area ... it's one of those areas that's yet to be tested," said Gordon Anderson, a professor of labour law at Victoria University.

He said it was probable China's labour laws would apply to a workforce employed under a Chinese contract, but moving in and out of New Zealand.

"It would be best if you've got a clear legal model that governs it and it would be sensible to think of this before it starts to sort of get out of hand ... it's something that has to be thought about quite quickly."

Mr Hills said the Chinese SOEs he had worked with for five years always, as a first rule, complied with local labour laws and building codes.

New Zealand needs an estimated 30,000 more construction workers, while Auckland has $30 billion worth of major public and private projects in the pipeline, as well as extra house building.

Infrastructure Minister Stephen Joyce said the workforce did not need supplementing outside the usual sources of apprentices, people returning to the construction sector, New Zealanders returning from Australia, and skilled migrants.

"We have no current plans to use imported skilled labour beyond our current migration settings for both temporary and permanent skilled migration," said Mr Joyce.

But those settings have not deterred some Chinese developers and builders, with an increase in such deals, including two of Auckland's tallest buildings.

Beijing Engineering and Construction is interested in building a chain of up to nine hotels, while a Beijing university's business arm has signed a billion-dollar offer to explore investment opportunities in the Far North.