Tsunami of workers headed to city

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The pleasure of having a rebuilt Christchurch won't come without some pain. How will the city cope with many thousands of workers and support staff who will pour in to do the job? JOHN McCRONE reports.

It is the Catch 22 of the recovery. Christchurch needs to truck in an army of builders to fix the city as fast as possible, but what is life going to be like once they all arrive?

Even driving about the streets now there seem enough impatient utes and vans pushing aggressively through the traffic. Multiply this by, what, five or 10, by the end of the year?

House prices are already inflated and decent rentals properties in short supply. Multiply this too, by how much?

Early estimates from the Canterbury Employment and Skills Board are that the earthquake rebuild will require 24,000 carpenters, painters, labourers, concrete layers and other trades, plus a further 12,000 managers, accountants, engineers, shop staff and hospitality workers, to support them.

We are talking about a spike in numbers that could last a decade. Where are they all going to live? How well are they going to fit in? Will they completely change the character of Christchurch?

"I don't think people have got their heads around the enormity of the issue yet," says Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce chief executive Peter Townsend.

"The simple way that I look at it is we've effectively lost an Ashburton inside our city if you look at the houses that've been destroyed. And if we're going to accommodate those 20,000 to 30,000 workers, plus in many cases their families, then we need another two Ashburtons.

"This means we need a total of another three Ashburtons inside Christchurch by the end of next year."

So a construction boomtown, a city bursting at the seams.

Consider all the social problems that would be created by large numbers of transient workers, especially if cooped up in edge-of-town barrack-style camps, the cash jingling in their pockets when they felt like blowing off some steam.

It is a well-understood phenomenon, one happening all the time around the world with mining or energy projects where towns get swamped for a few years. Wages get cranked up, behaviour gets a little rough. Then there is the bust when the workers just as suddenly depart when the job is done.The economy that has grown up around their presence collapses. The equally fast unwind leaves a long-term hangover.

Townsend says the reconstruction has barely started, yet he is seeing signs of pressure building.

"Come over to my company for more money'.""There are stories of digger drivers having their window knocked on and someone saying, 'I've watched you working. You're doing a good job.

This week, the Real Estate Institute reported short-term rental properties are now virtually impossible to find in Christchurch. People having house repairs are either having to camp in their homes while the builders work around them or rent motel rooms. That in turn is cutting into beds for tourists, further hurting the many local businesses relying on a recovery of tourist numbers.

Students are finding no accommodation, creating another reason to bypass Christchurch for their education for the next few years.

Townsend says if Christchurch does not get prepared now, the headaches of having the builders in are going to be all over the city come August or September. "We do run the risk of a real goldrush mentality in the rebuild of our city," he warns.

The co-ordinating body for the recovery is the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera).

However, Cera general manager for strategy, planning and policy, Diane Turner, says the Government has decided to take a largely hands off, free market approach to the problem.

Turner says the situation is being studied and monitored. Cera keeps track of rental property listings and other indicators.

Yet, because most of the workers employed on the recovery will either belong to the big construction companies, or to the sub-contractors hired by them, they are best placed to handle any accommodation and staff welfare concerns.

A few large names are project managing the rebuild. For example, the $2 billion of road, sewage and other basic services repairs is being co-ordinated by the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team (Scirt), a consortium formed by City Care, Downer, Fletcher, Fulton Hogan and McConnell Dowell.

 

Each of the insurance companies has signed deals with particular firms. The Earthquake Commission is with Fletcher Construction, AMI with Arrow International and IAG with Hawkins Construction.

"The Government's position at the moment is that it's up to the companies who want the workers here [to take responsibility]. They're a commercial enterprise, so they need to make arrangements," Turner says.

Turners says of course there are preferences. The hope is employers will find ways to spread the incoming workers around the city and region, integrating them with local communities, rather than isolating them in workers' camps.

There has already been speculation about using Burnham military base as a natural location. However, Turner warns: "If you have a whole lot of blokes living in confined circumstances with no ability to have a normal social life outside work hours, there will be issues."

Turner says Cera is encouraging firms to look to Kiwi workers first, rather than rushing to import Irish migrants or itinerant workers from South East Asia.

She says it makes sense for the companies as well. A rebuild army integrated into local life will make everyone happier. Life would soon pall for men living in huts in a field.

Some think the Government is being cautious, holding back, because it got caught out the last time it rushed in to help. In the wake of the February earthquake, it hastily drafted in a fleet of campervans, then started building emergency accommodation villages to house the displaced.

There was talk of 2500 modular homes crammed onto public land such as the A&P showgrounds. But the plans were quietly shelved after the campervans remained empty and the first two villages in Kaiapoi and Linwood Park struggled to attract even a single tenant.

The villages have since filled up. The issue was mostly timing. However, it did illustrate the difficulty of trying to decide too much from the top.

So it is being left to the companies who are doing the work. Fortunately, most sound eager to do their bit.

Quin Henderson, South Island manager of Hawkins Construction, says with the residential rebuilds for IAG and expected commercial building projects, his firm alone will need to call on some 7000 staff and sub-contractors. The task is to grow this supply chain as organically as possible.

Henderson says Hawkins is starting close to home, looking to Cantabrians, as this minimises the disruption. People will already have their own houses and lives in the region. As part of this, Hawkins is negotiating with Ngai Tahu and Christchurch Polytech to train up as many local young people as it can.

Then Hawkins is tapping into its networks around the country.

"As a national company, we've been bringing our people back from big projects in Dunedin, Queenstown and Blenheim. And we are calling on our Wellington and Auckland offices as well."

It is not as if people will be coming down for just a year or so, he says.

"If you listen to the projections from the Reserve Bank, we're talking about a 10-to-15 year rebuild."

So, for many, it is going to be a potentially permanent move. Henderson says whole subcontracting firms are preparing to relocate themselves and their staff to Christchurch.

And he says rather than being footloose young males, many of the arriving workers will be older skilled tradespeople. "You've usually got guys who are married with one or two kids."

They will be looking to settle into established communities, wanting schools for their children, jobs for their partners, an ordinary social life.

To help them get started, Hawkins has been organising barbecues and induction weekends. It has set up a buddy system. And to encourage them to imagine their futures here even after the rebuild, Henderson says he has unabashedly been selling the merits of the southern lifestyle.

"We took 48 down to do the Wanaka Motatap at the weekend. Made them bike over the mountain. Said: 'Here's your bike and its 50 kilometres that way.' They were all on the blower to their mates afterwards saying, 'You've got to get down here, too'."

Giving another glimpse of how it is going to work, Henderson says the smoothest way for Hawkins to build up the numbers will be to persuade its sub- contractors to double or triple their own work force.. But this is a big cultural shift that will need a lot of company support.

"An electrician, plasterer or tiler is typically going to be a small-to-medium enterprise with about five to 10 people. The guy who owns the company will be working the tools while he supervises. And his wife will be doing the accounts at the weekend.

"But the market now needs that person to employ another 20 people. So he has to become the fulltime boss. He also has to find another four people from his team to train to be supervisors. And his wife can no longer handle the accounts."

This kind of sudden expansion can too often lead to fatal cashflow problems, says Henderson. Without the right help, many contractors could crash and burn. So there is going to have to be business training and upskilling offered as well.

However, expanding through the existing supply chain makes the best sense. It will mean that even when larger numbers of migrants start to be used, they can be added to the workforce in as orderly a fashion as possible.

There are no clear estimates yet of how many may actually come from overseas.

But when Canterbury Employment and Skills Board deputy chairman Alex Bouma toured British job fairs last year, he found the European economic woes meant there certainly was plenty of interest. And many tradespeople were looking for a permanent move with their families.

"We thought there would be more front-of-mind worries about coming to an earthquake-damaged city. But actually the questions were of a practical nature, like 'Can I find somewhere to live, what's the commute like, are the people welcoming?'," says Bouma.

He says it is likely the recovery will also have to tap the highly mobile sources of construction labour in India, Asia and the Pacific Islands.

But still the talk is of avoiding workers camps. Henderson agrees it will be a temptation for some.

"Burnham would make sense because all the kitchens and facilities are out there. You could bus workers in and bus them back out."

Yet it would be a big mistake.

"I've worked over in places like Dubai and Pakistan and I don't think Canterbury would socially accept that solution."

Henderson says if special worker accommodation is to be built, the obvious answer would be to create something like an Olympic village in town - blocks of flats or mixed-use buildings that would be an asset after the rebuild. Hawkins is investigating that.

But a free market approach is going to throw up many different choices, Henderson believes. Already he has heard from a Merivale woman setting up a group to take in boarders.

"There's a lot of middle-aged ladies like her, living alone in large homes for whatever reason. So she's organised this little group.

Both the cash and companionship are welcome, says Henderson. And just like that, some 500 billets have been found.

The question is whether it is going to be enough.

Cera is right that companies like Fletchers, Fulton Hogan and Mainzeal have a natural self-interest in looking after their own supply chains. And local property developers and entrepreneurs are going to respond to the business opportunities.

"I'd be looking at opening a chain of Irish pubs right now," quips Bouma.

Townsend agrees. "At the end of the day, it will be a lot of small solutions, not one big one," he says.

But he also worries the numbers will be so overwhelming that Cera needs to have some other answers ready.

Townsend says a lot of the workforce may have to find homes in outlying country towns, with the obvious consequences on traffic into Christchurch.

"We might have to look at whether its feasible to put on a train service between Ashburton and Christchurch every morning, and another out to the north, so we can get people into the central city for the rebuild during the day."

He says there are other ways to reduce the pressure on Christchurch, like prefabricating buildings out of town.

"We can construct our city outside our city, if you like. For example, there's a company in Blenheim making roof joists. They've got 30 people working there and they're trucking them down overnight."

Yet Townsend says his fear is that the simple logistics of coping with so many incoming workers, and the need to avoid a boom-and-bust situation, means the recovery will end up being stretched out for much longer than it otherwise should.

Cera's Turner is coy about the probable trade-off. She admits that guiding the pace of the recovery is probably the authority's most delicate job. And she assures those in broken homes that they will get priority. "They're the people in greatest need."

But does that then mean some of the larger civic projects may be deliberately staggered? Turner is not keen to comment, although she says the industry's costs are going to act as a feedback brake.

"Potentially, if we don't have enough people, you will get the companies competing. And that will ramp up the price, making it a less efficient recovery."

Again the Catch 22. How to have a fast rebuild without having an overheated rebuild?

And even if the pace is well managed, it is easy to guess that Christchurch is going to feel a very different place by the end of the year. How will existing residents cope with that?

"Ohh, Cantabrians hate change," Henderson laughs. "We're set in our ways."

But he does believe that in the long run, many who come for the reconstruction will stay on.

They will inject energy into the town. And they will have their own special bond because, of course, they will have helped build what Christchurch has become.

Townsend looks at it more philosophically. The construction boom will bring both problems and opportunities. Expect both good and bad.

"But look, it's a necessary thing. We need people to come and rebuild this city," he says. And his hope is that people are as prepared as they claim they are, because it is all going to start rather soon now.

Discussion

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