John de Bueger
Last week saw a picket line at Port Tauranga - a demonstration of trade union muscle that for those of us who can recall the pitched battles and brouhahas of yesteryear is now thankfully rare. Furthermore, the calm diplomatic demeanour of the union rep when interviewed on the radio exuded such sweet reasonableness that I fleetingly thought the news-clip must be a spoof.
The lads were showing solidarity with some of their less fortunate brothers at the Hillside railway workshop in Dunedin who had - in a masterstroke of crass KiwiRail managerial ineptness - been declared redundant on the very same day that the first consignment of Chinese-made wagons arrived in this country.
On radio, the head honcho of KiwiRail declared the Corporation was saving 25 per cent by buying Chinese rolling-stock. One wonders how this guy got to be chief executive of KiwiRail. Hasn't he actually bought anything Chinese recently, and learned the simple truth that in this world you get what you pay for? If these wagons are of a similar quality to other Chinese items one is forced to buy these days, it won't be long before the naive bean-counters at KiwiRail end up paying a great deal more than 25 per cent extra fixing up the mess - and belatedly realise that locally made items were a snip.
Let me recount some recent experiences with Chinese junk.
A power-drill bought from a reputable national hardware chain lasted precisely six months before the battery packed a sad and wouldn't hold its charge longer than 10 minutes - a great bargain if you don't mind spending one hour recharging after every hole. In fairness, this item was on special during an annual sale, and I didn't really expect it to see out the year. I got what I paid for.
I am a bit deaf, and the inability to hear the phone ringing infuriated one of my friends to such an extent that he bought an extension phone and installed it in my kitchen. The first phone lasted a month and was replaced under warranty. The replacement worked OK for a year before developing an irritating fuzzy noise, to finally collapse into total silence a year later. It came from that well-known emporium whose key advertising slogan stresses that everything in store is a bargain. It was a bargain all right. Anyway, help is at hand. A member of the bridge club has most kindly given me a 20-year-old New Zealand-made Telecom model that I expect to be still working when I depart this mortal coil.
Then there are laptops. I am utterly dependent on one at work, and over the last 20 years the company has replaced my machine, on average, about every five or six years. The only reason these old machines were replaced was because Bill Gates kept on issuing bloated software upgrades that exceeded machine memory. Not one failed mechanically. In fact, my old 286 got handed down to my daughter, and was still working happily after a further six years of school and university - never having required service once. I have had similar experiences with a succession of US-made Compaq machines, and would happily have stuck with this manufacturer for life. But no; HP bought them out and guess where they switched manufacture to? I don't know if you have experienced hard-drive failure, but it is akin to a cat being strangled. Shortly before the crash, a "blue screen" arrives and curtly tells you that it's all over rover - before blacking out.
Hard-drives can't be fixed, and files can't be recovered, except at great expense by outside specialists. How does $3000 to $5000 grab you? I have now experienced the dreaded blue screen twice - and surprise, surprise, this has been in the past six months on Chinese-made junk.
You may say what have railway wagons and computer hardware got in common, so let's talk about Chinese-made steel pressure vessels. Like railway wagons, these are welded steel fabrications.
I doubt there are any oil companies in New Plymouth unfamiliar with the pitfalls associated with Chinese pressure vessels. Unless you flood their factory with expat inspectors, and bird-dog them all the way, you can expect crap welding and highly questionable radiographic documentation.
A client recently asked me to estimate the true comparative cost between east Asian and New Zealand-made pressure vessels.
I found after running through the numbers, that if you allow for enough inspection to ensure that you don't have to cut out and reweld the junk when it gets here, and fully allow the transport cost of essentially shipping empty boxes, New Zealand-made pressure vessels compare very favourably indeed.
Following the San Lu milk adulteration scandal, it is not surprising that Chinese tour groups take baby formula home as hand baggage. Only last week, international athletes were warned off Chinese pork anywhere if they wish to avoid positive drug tests.
The attention to detail that produced those exquisite Ming vases still exists in China, and you can get quality if you pay for it, but such is the endemic commercial immorality, they'll palm you off with junk unless you really understand expediting and inspection.
Let us hope KiwiRail do, because if they have stupidly bought on bottom-line price alone, it won't be long before these wagons are sent to Hillside for a re-build. When KiwiRail has paid for that, the initial 25 per cent premium will seem cheap indeed.
- © Fairfax NZ News