It's a man's world among skilled migrant workers

MARC GREENHILL
Last updated 05:00 18/03/2013
Samantha Forsyth
KIRK HARGREAVES/Fairfax NZ
REBUILD WORK: Samantha Forsyth, a decorator from Yorkshire, is one of the few migrant women working on the Christchurch rebuild.

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Fifteen times more foreign men than women have migrated to help rebuild earthquake-hit Christchurch.

Latest immigration figures show 846 visas have been issued to skilled workers since July last year, including carpenters (129), quantity surveyors (86) and painters (78). Of those, 6 per cent were female.

British and Irish women make up more than half (27), followed by Filipinos (8) and Americans (6).

The skill-shortage list includes a variety of professions but the majority are trades.

A 2012 Department of Statistics household labour force survey showed more than 52,000 Kiwi women were employed as trade workers and technicians, about 23 per cent of the overall total.

Last year's modern apprenticeship figures have not been finalised but in 2011 11.5 per cent were female.

Christchurch immigration adviser Mike Bell said few of his female clients were in rebuild-related professions. Some were in couples where both were on the skill-shortage list.

"Based on our experience, you either get women more into the tourism and catering trade or they're quite highly-qualified," he said. "[Women] are here, they're just often not anything to do with the rebuild."

Some of the more than 12,000 British and Irish working-holiday visa-holders could also be working in rebuild trades. More women on temporary visas could be in Christchurch, Bell said.

Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce settlement support co-ordinator Lana Hart said employers were tapping into different labour markets such as new migrants, women returning to the paid workforce and youth.

"With apprenticeships and training programmes now available to draw these potential workers into the workforce, we should be seeing a rise in the number of female workers in trades sourced both locally and internationally," Hart said.

Since Christmas, 127 new migrants have been granted skill-shortage visas. Irish numbers, once among the strongest, appeared to have waned with six arriving in the past two months.

Filipino workers make up more than half the newcomers this year.

Bell said the migration of Irish tradesmen to Christchurch was unlikely to slow.

"The building trade over there has absolutely collapsed and that's to our benefit because we can get the really good, skilled and experienced workers to come over here."

The increase in Filipino workers could be attributed to wage disparity. They were paid on average about $5 a hour less than British or Irish workers, Bell said.

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"What we don't want is people bringing in specific workers because they're cheaper.

"It's supposed to be a merit-based system," he said.

"The workers coming in from the Philippines, as far as I'm aware, are very highly skilled, highly qualified and work amazingly hard, so for that there's good reason to choose them over other workers. That's fine but I wouldn't want to see people chosen because they're cheaper."

WOMAN TRADIE USED TO BEING ODD ONE OUT

Samantha Forsyth is used to being a minority in the male-dominated decorating trade.

As a migrant woman working on the Christchurch rebuild, she is in the most extreme of minorities.

Immigration figures show just 51 women have migrated to the city for rebuild-related professions since July last year.

Forsyth, a decorator from Yorkshire, England, moved to Christchurch 10 months after she was lured by a recruitment advertisement.

She had been weighing up starting her own business, but instead opted to travel after more than 10 years in the trade.

"I saw this job and thought, ‘Why not?' It's making your mark in history and doing some good in this world, isn't it?"

Forsyth had encountered the "odd bad egg" in England, questioning her place on the work site. Most were shocked she could plaster and paint.

In Christchurch, there had been no problems.

"When I work on a building site back home, it's like the Queen's just walked past.

"They still get shocked now. Here, it's like nothing. I'm just one of them really."

She encountered few other foreign female tradies, but she was encouraged to see young New Zealand girls on job sites in Christchurch.

- The Press

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