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Sharples: Worker Safety

Electricity Amendment; Gas Amendment; Health and Safety in Employment; Ministry of Energy (Abolition) and Plumbers, Gasfitters, and Drainlayers Bill

Dr Pita Sharples, Co-leader of the Maori Party

Thursday 23 November 2006

It was just another Wednesday in Wellington. 30 August 2006.

And suddenly gas supplies in the Central Business District shut down after a burst water main infected the pipeline with water and Gravel.

The sixty-year-old, high-pressure water main, just outside Parliament beneath the intersection of Bowen Street and the Terrace, burst and water flooded 30 kilometres of the central city network. About 1000 customers were affected – including even the very influential customers of Copperfields and Bellamys.

Nearly two hundred business owners faced delays.

Commercial buildings, hotels, restaurants could not heat water, cook or provide heating and air-conditioning. The hospitality industry estimated they incurred a loss of about five million dollars.

It took twenty-one days before the last customers were finally reconnected.

The fact is that there are 130 holes yet still to be repaired in this city now renamed as the home of Swiss Cheese.

The crisis highlighted the vulnerability of an aging infrastructure.

But it also brought home, very strongly, the often invisible, but vital role that gasfitters, drain-layers, plumbers play in maintaining our major utilities; the significance of workers involved in energy safety; as electricity workers; those involved in health and safety.

Madam Speaker, the industries we are discussing today are essential as part of a team keeping New Zealanders healthy.

The drains and pipes that comprise our central networks, take away waste as well as making sure New Zealanders have access to water that is safe to drink.

Plumbers and gas-fitters are a critical component of the complex web of health and safety arrangements that enable towns and cities to function.

And so, the Maori Party is happy to support this collection of Bills in the interests of public and worker safety.

We support the proposals to repeal and replace previous provisions with improved requirements regarding the registration, licensing, and disciplining of plumbers, gasfitters and drainlayers.

The Bills also contains mechanisms designed to assure the public that people engaged in these services are competent to undertake the work.

This issue of competency and safety is one that the Maori Party has a particular interest in.

It was because of our interest in safety matters, that we took up the advice offered by Engineers, Printers and Manufacturers Union and suggested an amendment to remove the ability of the Electrical Workers Licensing Board to issue practicing licenses to employers.

The Energy Safety Amendment Bill sought o revamp the issuing of employer licenses, which allows employers to hold practicing licenses on behalf of their workers.

The amendment we put forward was suggested by the EPMU in their submission to the Commerce Commission. It is their view that employer licenses have the potential to compromise the safety of both workers and the public, and should be disallowed.

We agreed with them, that it is essential that the electrical workforce is comprised of highly trained people that fellow workers can absolutely rely on.

It gives workers confidence to know their colleagues are properly trained and able to hold their own individual practicing license rather than the license being held by the employer.

We also shared the concern of EPMU that business costs and skills shortages may result in employers choosing to opt for less trained or experienced workers, therefore putting other workers and the public at risk.

The crux of the issue is about ensuring frameworks for adequate employer investment into the training and skill development of workers.

It was a matter of great disappointment to us, that these amendments put forward by the Engineers, Printers and Manufacturers Union, the largest trade union in Aotearoa, were voted down by all parties, except the Maori Party and the Green Party – and we appreciate the efforts of our colleagues in the Greens to always look out for the interests of workers.

The experience of competency and safety issues for Maori employed in this workforce also takes on another dimension, in the context of cultural safety.

Tamati Kruger, working at that time for the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry as a Project Co-ordinator in the Eastern Bay of Plenty, has written about the involvement of Maori plumbers in the industry. He told the story about one young plumber who was confronted by a number of local plumbers who had joined forces to try and put him out of business.

According to that young plumber, and I quote:

"I took a lot of Maori work off the other plumbers in this area. And with the Maori population being quite high here, a lot of it was their work. That's what it boils down to ... I feel pressured a lot of the time when I'm in town."

Madam Speaker, the Maori Party knows that raising comments such as his, often leave people feeling uncomfortable.

But we cannot raise the issues of public and worker safety without addressing the importance of protecting and achieving cultural safety in every occupation in which Maori are working – and indeed workers of all cultures and all ethnicities.

We must make a priority, if we are committed to the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders – that public and worker safety - including cultural safety – is given urgent attention.

Shortages in the workforce

The 2005 Colmar Brunton survey showed that employers expect to be short 594 registered craftsmen, 450 plumbers, 139 gasfitters, 177 drainlayers and 132 apprentices by the end of 2005. That’s a total of 1492 staff. The Department of Labour has also identified the serious and immediate skill shortage of these workers.

I wonder if anyone else in this House has ever tried to get a plumber or gasfitter at short notice? They are like the proverbial hen’s teeth – to get hold off in an emergency.

And for evidence of the nature of the crisis one only has to think about the situation for Canterbury residents this past winter where a chronic shortage of plumbers hugely exacerbated the hardships of below zero temperatures, causing water to freeze and pipes to burst, leaving many homes without water and heating.

Report back from Commerce Committee

The Commerce Committee recommended that the Bills be passed with a range of amendments.

We believe that the Select Committee process has addressed a myriad of concerns raised.

The report described appropriate responses to such issues as

- consultation,

- role clarification between ITO and board,

- initial proposals to change the licensing system have been greatly modified in line with minimising costs and maximising safety.

We are pleased also at the proposals to enable the public to easily recognize a licensed worker by way of making these registers publicly available. This is consistent with the requirements of building practitioners under the Building Act 2004 and we support such advances in the ongoing progress for accountability and transparency.

In this line, we are also pleased to support the improved procedures for addressing complaints against workers, with enhanced enforcement provisions.

These are all positive moves, and help to contribute to our decision to vote in support.

However, we note that like with the previous Bill, there will be compliance cost increases for workers and businesses; increases which we remain unconvinced as to the real value in terms of public and worker safety.

Finally, Madam Speaker we will support the series of Bills brought together under the auspices of the former Energy Safety Review Bill and the Plumbers, Gasfitters, and Drainlayers Bill in the interests of the public health and worker safety of Aotearoa.


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