Home > The Body Politic > The “free” market can’t even build a bloody hotel?!

The “free” market can’t even build a bloody hotel?!

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Our crisis in construction reaches tipping point

According to recent reports in the media, New Zealand is no longer able to build and complete major projects;

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Speaking to Radio NZ on 8 February,  Building Recruitment managing director, Kevin Everett, lamented our chronic shortage of skilled building staff;

“There’s astronomical demand, there’s shortages everywhere from skilled to semi-skilled, to labours. We just can’t get reliable people.

The feedback we’re getting for 2018 from our clients is that they’re all expecting a big year this year and that’s putting pressures on everyone because they just can’t get the manpower.

I’ve heard of people going in and getting 40, 50 people in one hit. We’re looking at doing a campaign just now to go across to the UK, so we’re going to go to London, Manchester, and Glasgow and try and bring people in. We’re looking for at least 100 people in all different skill sets, in residential and commercial.”

The $200 million Park Hyatt hotel project was first announced on 4 July 2016 as a j.v. (joint venture) between Hawkins Group and China State Construction Engineering Corporation (CSCEC), the latter being one of the world’s largest construction companies;

In 2012, The Economist named CSCEC as the world’s biggest builder by revenue, then at US72.6 billion, ahead of China Railway Construction, China Railway Engineering and giant French builder Vinci which in 2003 had been the world’s biggest construction company.

Now, CSCEC has revenue of about US$100 billion.

The Economist article said Japanese builders had now disappeared from the world’s top 10 builders, overtaken by Chinese construction companies.

Fu Wah International Group itself is is a Chinese-owned multi-billion corporation. According to Forbes Fu Wah’s chairman, Chan Laiwa, ranked number 36 on the China Rich List and was worth an estimated  US$5.9 billion.  The hotel project is being built by a Chinese construction firm for it’s Chinese owners.

The Park Hyatt will be Fu Wah’s first project in New Zealand. The company has agreed to spend  an additional $2.5 million on  a public promenade, walkway and art display in the vicinity of the hotel.

In the Hawkins Construction 2016 press release Fu Wah New Zealand General Manager, Richard Aitken, said;

“Together with China Construction, they have the resources, experience and skills to deliver an outstanding outcome for Auckland.”

Panuku Development is a Auckland Council CCO responsible for the regeneration of eighteen hectares of Auckland Council-owned land in the Wynyard Quarter. This includes the Park Hyatt hotel construction site, which it apparently retains ownership ofPanuku Development’s  then-Chief Executive, John Dalzell, echoed the sentiment;

“This appointment by Fu Wah International Group is a testament to the quality of work Hawkins has delivered on a number of Wynyard Quarter projects to date.”

In September 2015, as the Park  Hyatt project gained resource consent, then-PM John Key was singing the “benefits” accruing to the region;

“ The new $200 million Park Hyatt in Auckland and the $35 million Sofitel in Wellington will create jobs during construction and when the hotels are up and running.”

Gambling with promises of jobs

The arrangement sounds remarkably similar to a deal in between the National government and SkyCity Casino. In 2012, SkyCity was granted approval for up to 500 new pokie machines in return for a $350 million international convention centre in downtown Auckland.

At the time, Key also touted the promise of 900-plus construction jobs from the the Skycity development. This optimistic promise  was quickly revealed to be another of his shonkey “loose connections with the truth”;

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By June 2016, the reality of the Skycity deal revealed at least a hundred jobs going to offshore to an American contractor in Thailand. National’s response? This was “how the free market operated“.

Increasing tourism and “more jobs” appear to be the two main reasons touted for the Park Hyatt project.

But even the prospect of more jobs has recently been questioned.

Earlier this month (8 February), concerns were voiced that two hundred extra  workers from  China would have to be brought in from China, to “help the 300 local staff already on site“. According to Building Recruitment managing director, Kevin Everett, New Zealand evidently lacks the prerequite skills to complete the Hyatt project;

“There’ll be a number of skills mainly around fine decorating including stone work, tiling, wallpapering, painting, veneer work – there’s quite a lot timber veneer within the hotel, so they’ll bring those skills to us.”

Which is remarkable, as New Zealand once built and completed vast construction projects such as the Clyde Dam with minimal foreign labour;

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Clyde Dam is the largest concrete gravity dam in New Zealand consisting of one million cubic metres of concrete. It's height is 100 metres, width at base is 70 metres, width at crest 10 metres and length at crest 490 metres.

Clyde Dam is the largest concrete gravity dam in New Zealand consisting of one million cubic metres of concrete. It’s height is 100 metres, width at base is 70 metres, width at crest 10 metres and length at crest 490 metres.

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Plans to bring in two hundred Chinese workers appears to be part of China’s long-term strategy to engage and strengthen their state-owned construction companies. As The Economist pointed out in October 2012;

China’s construction firms have become good at finishing big projects on time. But analysts doubt whether they are ready for rich countries. Julian Bu of Jefferies, an investment bank, says their main advantage – low labour costs – is little help in places where they cannot bring lots of Chinese workers over

So much for claims that the project would create more jobs.

Fu Wah even issued a veiled warning that the Hyatt project could face disruptions and delays if  Chinese workers were not allowed into the country immediatly.

At a time when unemployment is still at 122,000 (most likely that figure is an under-estimation as Stats NZ has a narrow definition of unemployment) and under-employment has increased;

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– it is difficult to understand why New Zealand continues to import labour from overseas. Suggestions from some on the Right that these 122,000 constitute a group “unwilling” to work is not credible when taking into account that the under-employed group has risen sharply by a massive 7,000.

The economy – a legacy from nine years of National’s indifference to job-training and thirtyfive years of neo-liberal free market “hands off” ideology – appears paralysed and unable to engage with unemployed and under-employed for re-training. The new Coalition government Minister for Workplace Relations and Immigration, Iain Lees-Galloway, said as much on 8 February;

“We know that construction is a sector where the previous government failed to invest in the skills that New Zealanders need to participate in that sector, and there are significant shortages in the construction sector as we’re seeing a lot of infrastructure and a lot of construction being undertaken at the moment.”

It seems cheaper simply to import labour when needed, and return them to their home countries when that need has ended. That let’s businesses off the hook having to invest heavily in training local workers. It also increases labour exploitation by unscrupulous bosses.

The Property Council’s acting CEO, Matt Paterson, frankly admitted that foreign companies and labour could be used as a weapon to lowering prices (including wages), when he disclosed in July 2016;

“One of the issues holding back the development and construction market in New Zealand is high prices, so any additional competition we get is good. We do need to make sure competition is also bringing us quality and they’re not taking short cuts with materials or labour. Construction costs have been high in New Zealand for a long time. We need to develop a stronger, more competitive, capable construction sector. In the short term, there’s work that needs to be done and overseas firms can play a part in that. But we need to build stronger New Zealand industry.”

In the case of Fu Wah and the Hyatt hotel project, at least one construction company disclosed to Radio NZ that they had attempted to tender for the contract;

However an Auckland company, which did not want to be named for fear of losing out on future work, told RNZ they had voiced their interest at the start of the project in 2016.

A staff member said soon after Hawkins and China Construction were appointed as the main contractors, his company was contacted about what the programme of work would be and asked whether they would be able to do it.

“We went back and said ‘yes, everything’s fine, things are going to be a little bit tight here, things will be fine here’, but nothing major that would lead us to believe we’d been crossed off as a potential subcontractor.”

He said while it was emphasised that they should lock in subcontractors early because of a busy schedule to meet the deadline, it was never an issue of lack of skills.

“At that point in time we more or less had a year or two to lock in labour resource, to build up the labour teams that we have if necessary. But we heard nothing for a couple of years, in fact we never even heard back in the end on whether we could tender for the main package.”

When asked whether they had the staff to do the work now, he said they did.

There appear to be several aspects to this story – all inter-related;

Globalisation

The US’s economic model over the past 40 years has been predicated on a kind of globalisation that encourages low wages and outsourcing. The idea was that cheaper stuff would offset the loss of jobs and lower wages. But in an economy made up of 70 per cent consumer spending in which wages haven’t risen for most of the population since the 1990s, that maths stops working. “Globalisation can’t be just about outsourcing and low wages,” says [former General Electric CEO] [Jeff] Immelt (there’s an increasing body of research showing that low wages are a cause, rather than just a symptom, of the problems of globalisation).

In 2014, our own right-wing think-tank, the NZ Initiative (formerly Business Roundtable) said;

As technology improves, many of the unskilled jobs in advanced economies such as New Zealand will simply be replaced.

Even more pertinent, those unskilled jobs that can’t be replaced by technology are likely to be outsourced to those who can provide the cheapest labour, namely, developing countries.

Globalisation has already seen this effect occurring to a large extent.

Leaving labour to Market Supply & Demand

The free market sees unionised protection for workers as anathema to the concept of Supply and Demand for skilled, semi-skilled, and low-skilled workers.

During last year’s election, the supposedly “free market”  party, ACT, promised to increase teacher’s salaries – but with strings attached;

David Seymour is proposing to boost funding for schools – but only if they agree to take teachers out of collective pay agreements.

He said teachers had lost ground against the average wage over the past 30 years.

And Mr Seymour said the reason was a 1970s style pay system.

“The unions insist on paying the best teacher and the worst teacher in New Zealand exactly the same and often protecting under-performing teachers.

“What we’re saying is that we’ll raise teacher pay on average by $20k, but we won’t have that model anymore.”

The ACT Party education policy encourages “…schools to opt out of union contracts”. (Which seems to forget that teachers unions are already voluntary. People have a choice and can already opt-out of membership. Though the ACT Party espouses “personal freedom”, the word “choice” is strangely missing from their Principles statement.)

So what’s gone wrong?!

So if New Zealand has a free-market economy that according to one group is the third most open in the global economy – what’s gone wrong? Why do we have 126,000 unemployed and a further 108,700 under-employed when we have a skills shortage in the construction trade? (Note: Stats NZ’s definition of what constitutes an unemployed person is narrow and actual  numbers are most likely even higher than “official data” states.)

The Christchurch earthquakes of 4 September  2010 and 22 February  2011 damaged and destroyed large parts of the city.  In late 2011, the National-led government at the time was keenly aware that the cost of rebuilding was estimated to cost around NZ$13.5  billion. By 2014, Treasury increased that estimate to a jaw-dropping NZ$15.4 billion.

The need for skilled labour should have been obvious to all.

Obvious to everyone except the government at the time: the Key-led National government.

National’s “response” – an exercise in incompetence

National’s response to on-going problems in the construction industry can best be summed up in a March 2012 comment made by then Earthquake Recovery Minister, Gerry Brownlee;

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Leaving citizens to the “tender mercies” of the free market seems National’s de fault setting.

Which had its inevitable conclusions as the Christchurch re-build is yet to be completed; the entire country is suffering a housing crisis; affordability worsens; and homelessness increases. Even retiring “baby-boomers” have not escaped our deepening housing crisis;

“We risk discovering that New Zealand is going to have a population of homeless pensioners,” Salvation Army spokeswoman Sue Hay told Radio New Zealand.

Compounding housing unaffordability and homelessness was a critical shortfall in skill tradespeople.

At a time when over a hundred thousand New Zealanders were out of work and under-employment was rising, National was practically sitting on it’s hands.

Post 2008 Global Financial Crisis, enrollments for ITO trainees fell dramatically;

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In 2013 – two years after the second Christchurch earthquake, Waikato Plumbing Services office administrator,Gayelene Woodcock, warned presciently of a looming critical shortage of skilled tradespeople;

“During the early 1990s the same thing happened. When there was a decline after the 1987 crash it didn’t actually affect the whole industry until the early 1990s.

The lack of apprentices taken on there showed through about four or five years later when there was an extreme shortage of tradesmen.”

Labour’s Grant Robertson could also see the rushing train bearing down on us;

“We have a shortage now in skilled tradesmen. It’s welcome that the Government worked out they need to do something but the impact of that skilled shortage is being seen at the moment. It’s being seen in Christchurch and it’s likely to be seen around the country.”

Report Card: F for Failed

We now have a shortage of tradespeople so critical that the viability of some  building projects’ is threatened.

Whatever tepid measures National implemented failed to address the growing problem. After the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, National had clear warning of the problems confronting the construction industry.

It chose to tinker with half-hearted solutions, but  these proved ineffectual seven year later as one media report after another highlighted the crisis.

One immediate solution has been to remove barriers such as tuition costs. The  Productivity Commission’s report appeared to reluctantly confirm this barrier;

There is some evidence that differences in subsidy, fee and student support arrangements can influence the study decisions of students (and employers). For example, members of the ITO sector expressed concern about these influences on decisions on undertaking industry training while in full-time employment through an ITP, PTE or ITO…

[…]

The University of Waikato submitted that fees combined with geographic distance may still represent a substantial barrier to obtaining a university education. In particular, it notes:

While parents with professional incomes and substantial net assets may not be concerned about their
children acquiring large amounts of debt to fund tertiary study, the poorest families with minimal net
assets will quite rationally be averse to their children acquiring large amounts of debt. (University of
Waikato, sub.93, p.6)

[…]

The evidence suggests that higher fees reduce demand, that students in non-university tertiary education and lower-income students are more price-sensitive, and that some minority groups may be more price-sensitive (Leslie & Brinkman, 1987; Heller,1997). Where the actual cost students will pay is not transparent,
because various grants or discounts apply that mean actual cost is lower than the advertised price, students from lower-income families are more likely to be discouraged. The availability of loans and allowances will offset this, although students from lower-income households may also be more debt-averse.

In plain english, low-income families were “debt averse” – a scenario which contradicts many right-wing reactionary prejudice which parrots the myth that poor families are in debt because they make “poor choices”. In this case, a student debt is a poor choice that such families will unsurprisingly seek to avoid.

The new Labour-led Coalition government – not fettered by the dead-weight of user-pays ideology to which National is chained to – has understand this simply reality and taken blindingly obvious steps to remove this barrier;

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It took National nine years to allow the current mess we now have in the construction industry. A mess whereby over a hundred thousand New Zealanders are unemployed whilst the building industry is seeking to import cheap, skilled labour from offshore.

It has taken the Coalition just over three months to begin to tackle National’s toxic legacy of mis-management.

Postscript1

In March 2017, Fu Wah  applied to build 330 apartments on the Auckland waterfront, adjacent to the Hyatt Park hotel.

At this stage it is unclear who will  provide the labour for this project. Familiar claims have been made that the proposed NZ$500 million apartment project would “create more jobs”.

Past evidence suggests those claims should be regarded with caution.

Postscript2

Globalisation continues to wreak havoc with our local industries As Fletcher Building announced on 25 February has it has pulled out of the Ormiston Town Centre building project. This is the latest in building projects that Fletchers has either withdrawn from, or will not be tendering for, as local companies find it  impossible to compete with low-priced offshore competitors.

Postscript3

Fletcher’s chairperson, Ralph Norris announced his resignation from the debt-ridden company on 14 February.

Norris was also chairperson of the Business Roundtable until September 2001. The Business Rountable (later re-branded as the so-called “NZ Initiative”) was a pro-free market lobby pressure group  that was instrumental in the neo-liberal “reforms” of the late 1980s and 1990s. Part of those neo-liberal reforms was globalisation: allowing offshore companies to bid for contracts in New Zealand alongside local industries.

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References

Radio  NZ:  200 Chinese tradies to complete Akl hotel

Hawkins:  Hawkins and China Construction JV signs up for Park Hyatt Auckland

NZ Herald:  World’s biggest builder arrives in NZ for $375m in contracts

Forbes:  Profile – Chan Laiwa & family

TVNZ News:  $200M luxury hotel under way in Auckland’s waterfront

Panuku Development Auckland: Home Page

NZ Institute of International Affairs: Speech to the NZIIA – 3 May 2015

Radio NZ:  300 apartments for Auckland waterfront

Financial Times: Why US big business listens to Bernie Sanders

Treasury: 2014 Budget –  Rebuilding Christchurch

Fairfax media: Christchurch rent crisis ‘best left to market’

Radio NZ:  Housing report paints ‘sobering picture’ of crisis

Fairfax media:  More NZ retirees will become homeless without action on housing – Salvation Army

Productivity Commission: Student characteristics and choices (pgs 41, 60, 73, 74)

TVNZ:  Shortage of skilled tradespeople exacerbating Auckland’s housing problem

BCITO:  Prime Minister encourages construction apprentices

Radio NZ:  Fletcher out of running on another big-ticket build

Noted:  Unfair overseas competition hurting NZ forestry, says industry leader

Fairfax media:  ‘Incompetence’ behind Fletcher Building’s woes, admits chairman Sir Ralph Norris

NZ Herald: Ralph Norris retires

Additional

NZ Herald:  Brian Gaynor – How to fix Fletcher Building

Fairfax media: Dearth of tradesmen foreseen

Other Blogs

The Standard:  Fonterra and Fletcher Building

Previous related blogposts

Roy Morgan Poll: Unemployment and Under-employment up in New Zealand!

Lies, Damned lies and Statistical Lies

Lies, Damned lies and Statistical Lies – ** UPDATE **

MSM catches up on Unemployment stats rort

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This blogpost was first published on The Daily Blog on 26 February 2018.

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