Migrants bring world to the rebuild

Last updated 05:00 05/01/2013
Arthur Adlaon
RECRUITED: Filipino construction worker Arthur Adlaon working at Christchurch Hospital for Leighs Construction

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Overseas rebuild workers are set to turn Christchurch into a cultural melting pot, but is one of New Zealand's most homogenous cities ready to change? MARC GREENHILL reports.

John Mullin is battling a stereotype.

The Irish builder moved to Christchurch about six months ago to join the city's foreign rebuild influx.

More than 100 workers from the Emerald Isle have done likewise in the past 18 months, along with another 600 skilled migrants from around the world.

Far from being one of the young, single, hard-partying newcomers some Cantabrians fear will cause disruption, Mullin is a sports-loving family man with three teenage children.

"We probably have a reputation and a stereotype in Australia and certainly in New Zealand with the young Irish maybe, but for guys like me . . . I'm into my fitness. I did a triathlon back home in Ireland last year."

Statistics New Zealand figures show 20 per cent of Christchurch residents are overseas-born, less than the 23 per cent national average.

Auckland's 1.5 million population is made up of 40 per cent migrants.

South African Conrad Stoffels, who moved to Christchurch for rebuild work last year with his wife and two daughters, described the city as "welcoming but visually very monocultural".

Massey University professor Paul Spoonley said an "unparalleled" influx of construction migrants into Christchurch in the next 18 months would see the city leapfrog from one of New Zealand's least ethnically diverse cities to a top contender for the title.

"The people of Christchurch have got to understand that there are going to be very different faces on the streets soon. It's going to be a very different city in a few years and it is important they adjust to that," he said.

There are signs that some attitudes will be hard to change.

Last June, Christchurch's Irish community hit back at police claims that Irish fans at a rugby game were more intoxicated and disorderly than New Zealand fans.

Two months later, the Employment Relations Authority found Christchurch-based carpenter Michael Corbett was abused at work for being Irish. He was awarded more than $13,000.

Online comments on a recent worker-housing story questioned whether people would want to live near migrant enclaves.

One suggested the homes would be trashed with "booze-fuelled parties" and fights, and others highlighted possible parking and noise problems.

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Mullin said Irish workers were often "tarred with the one brush".

"We're not all drinkers. The young Kiwis know how to party every bit as much as the young Irish," he said.

His experiences with Cantabrians had been positive. A work colleague he had known only two weeks offered to lend Mullin his kayak.

"By and large, people have been very nice and helpful to us since we've come here," he said.

Leighs Construction has recruited dozens of Filipino carpenters, many of whom are being housed in a former forestry camp in North Canterbury.

Managing director Anthony Leighs said there was an "understandable level of apprehension and maybe in some quarters concern" about the number of single, male rebuild workers arriving in the city.

"Christchurch is traditionally pretty conservative and it's not the most diverse population, so there's understandable apprehension about what this massive influx of construction workers going to bring," he said.

The demolition phase encouraged "slightly more colourful characters", which caused some problems, Leighs said.

His firm was trying to ensure the workers recruited were "good citizens", and background checks were rigorous.

"We've got some really fantastic people working for us from overseas. They're integrating really well and having a good time."

Leighs said Cantabrians were "very welcoming" people, and incidents of international visitors being ill-treated were isolated.

The rebuild would change Christchurch's demographic and the community would have to adapt, he said.

"We need a lot of people and we should be welcoming them and celebrating them, and making an effort to bring them into our community."

Matt Jones, managing director of recruitment firm Canstaff, said Christchurch suffered from the "CCC" effect, or "colonial, conservative Cantabrian".

"These guys are coming here to work and make money. If all they did in life was party all the time, they wouldn't be recruited to start with and they wouldn't come to New Zealand to do that," he said.

The average age of the workers his firm recruited was 38, and a mix of singles and families.

About 20 per cent arrived without families and either worked 11 months before returning home or sent for relatives when they had set up.

The recruitment package included shipping, financial services, accommodation, a "buddy system" and monthly social events for newcomers.

Most of the workers were used to working abroad.

"It's not a new thing for them, it's just a bit further," Jones said.

Canstaff targeted older, skilled workers and background checks were "more rigorous" than Immigration New Zealand standards, he said.

About one in every 15 applicants met his company's standard.

Jones said the city "should be concerned" about some of the workers who were not arriving through recruitment schemes, but workers from other regions in New Zealand were more likely to cause trouble than migrants.

"If you spoke to any person that owned a backpackers, hostel or camping ground and asked them about getting workers staying on a semi-permanent basis, they would all tell you the only problems they have are with Kiwis. They don't have any problems with people from overseas."

Changes to the skills-shortage list late last year helped "lift the bar" by decreasing the dependence on holiday-visa workers, Jones said.

Tanya Kwasza, whose company is building housing for migrant workers, said the city should welcome the "fresh blood".

New workers would stimulate the city's economy and their accommodation needs would revitalise the city's housing stock.

"I think post-quake, the psychology of Christchurch has changed. People have opened up absolutely amazingly and are probably quite excited [about the newcomers]," she said.

Investors had expressed concerns about who would be renting the houses.

"They see a house with six drunken Irishmen," Kwasza said.

However, her brother employed tilers from Asia who were "quiet as church mice and deeply religious".

"Their families are here, their children going to school here - there's no riff-raff at at all," she said.

Lana Hart, the settlement support co-ordinator at the Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce, said overseas rebuild workers should be viewed as an "asset, not a liability".

"Instead of being threatened, or fearful or annoyed, [Cantabrians should] value what they're bringing. The ones I've met are bringing not just skills," she said.

The media were picking up on the "drunks and troublemakers" story, but the many positive stories were "as different as the people themselves", Hart said.

"A small group of the Irish builders - and there's hundreds and hundreds of Irish workers here at the moment - are in the hooligan category. That's not very many," she said.

"If we put this into context, we might hear some grumbling about rebuild workers' behaviour socially, but what we're not hearing is that part of our New Zealand culture is to binge drink and be disruptive as well."

The typical migrant was focused and a "little bit adventurous", she said.

"They have taken a risk that people who have lived in the same place their whole life might not take. I don't want to stereotype all migrants, but to stick your neck out and change your entire culture . . . there's a certain type of person that does that," she said.

"The classic migrant has a lot to contribute to our society here."

The Philippines especially had a large export worker market, Hart said.

About seven million Filipinos worked abroad temporarily and returned home once every one to two years.

"Their role is to support their extended family back in the Philippines, so they want to work very hard, work long hours, please their boss and not rock the boat," she said.

"It would be great to think everyone who comes here wants to integrate, be part of New Zealand life and do what we do, like have barbecues, but it might be that they just want to be head down, bottom up and work."

Many employers were going "above and beyond" to help their overseas workers integrate and feel comfortable in their new home, Hart said.

It was vital to the rebuild that Christchurch acted as a good host, she said.

"We need these people; not only their labour but their contribution to our population, our communities and systems here. We lost thousands of people after the quake, and we need to replenish that, but we need to replenish it with people who have the right skills for this region," she said.

"It we don't get that right and don't encourage them to stay, then this could be a critical factor of the rebuild."

Christchurch had a "wonderful opportunity" to become a multicultural city in a short time.

"We are the most homogenous society of the three main cities in New Zealand," Hart said.

"We didn't have to have much to do with diverse populations prior to the rebuild and the reality now is that we will."

- The Press

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