Dozens of marine engineering jobs in Nelson are at risk over a Government policy to refuse entry to ships during the Covid-19 pandemic, delivering a hammer blow to the international repair and refit industry.
Aimex Service Group managing director Steve Sullivan said about 40 jobs were under threat at the Port Nelson-based company he founded in 2009.
“Forty per cent of our revenue comes from the international refit business,” Sullivan said. “It’s all under threat.”
Two major contracts were cancelled just before the alert level 4 lockdown, leading to a loss of about $4 million to the wider Nelson economy, Sullivan said.
“We … will have to put more people out of work if the policy does not change,” Sullivan said, referring to the 40 jobs at risk.
Both he and Nelson MP Dr Nick Smith urged the Government to lift the blanket ban and consider the entry of each ship on a case-by-case basis.
The catalyst for prompting Sullivan to speak out publicly was the Government refusal to allow entry to the Captain Vincent Gann, a tuna boat now at sea in the eastern Pacific and in need of urgent repair.
A fault with the Captain Vincent Gann’s reduction gear that provides propulsion meant it was able to travel at half its usual speed only. It was also at risk of further damage. The repair work was expected to take about six weeks and would deliver about $600,000 to the wider Nelson economy – $400,000 to Aimex and $200,000 to associated businesses.
The Captain Vincent Gann’s last port of call was American Samoa, which had no reported cases of Covid-19 and had closed its borders in late March.
TNL International shipping agent John Lowden said the American-owned Captain Vincent Gann had been fishing out of Pago Pago for the past 18 months.
“The crew has been at sea since … 15th May and by the time it gets down here, they would have been at sea for a month,” Lowden said. “They don’t pose any threat at all.”
Sullivan said the crew members could easily be tested for Covid-19 and were prepared to be quarantined on arrival, if necessary. . .
This exchange in parliament yesterday gives no hope that common sense will prevail:
Hon Dr NICK SMITH (National—Nelson) to the Minister of Customs: Does she agree with the statement by Steve Sullivan from Nelson’s marine engineering company AIMEX that “The Government’s policy to refuse entry of vessels for engineering and maintenance work is costing jobs and millions of dollars in work”, and does she stand by her department’s decision to refuse entry to the fishing vessel the Captain Vincent Gann?
Hon JENNY SALESA (Minister of Customs): I do stand by Customs’ decision to give effect to immigration rules. This Government’s position has continued to be that the best economic response is a strong public health response. While I appreciate this is an incredibly difficult time for many businesses in New Zealand, our Government has made unprecedented support available for businesses like AIMEX. I encourage them to take up any and all support that they are eligible for from the Government during this unprecedented time.
Hon Dr Nick Smith: Is the Minister saying it’s better for New Zealand for companies like AIMEX to take a wage subsidy rather than actually letting them do the work that earns the company and the country income.
Hon JENNY SALESA: The question is mainly about whether or not we allow a fishing vessel like this to come through. The decision made by the Government has not been to open up our border. We are 12 days into having zero COVID-19 cases, with only one active case. In terms of foreign ships, on 26 May a foreign fishing boat emerged as one of the points of transmission where a foreign-flagged, foreign-crewed vessel with 29 members of its crew being COVID-19 positive was heading towards the Pacific. A vaccine is not yet available for COVID-19, so the fact is that we are focused on saving lives and focused on public health. We are now looking at the recovery of our economy, but I stand by our Government and our response.
Hon Dr NICK SMITH: Why did she state yesterday in this House that the Customs refusal to allow entry of the Capt. Vincent Gann from American Samoa to New Zealand was based on advice of the ministry and Director-General of Health, when her department has admitted it never sought any advice from the Ministry of Health or the director-general on that vessel from American Samoa. . .
Hon JENNY SALESA: The question that the honourable member asked me yesterday was whether I stand by Customs’ policies and actions—a very general question. Then he followed up with the question about this particular vessel. Had he put down a specific question like that, I would have been able to answer in specific ways.
Hon Dr Nick Smith: Does she accept that the COVID-19 risks for the fishing crew from American Samoa are far less than from the film crew that’s been allowed in by the Government from California, when American Samoa has had zero cases and zero deaths, and California has had 115,000 cases and 4,200 deaths?
Hon JENNY SALESA: I reiterate that this particular ship was a foreign-flagged, foreign-crewed ship. They were not all Americans or American Samoans on that particular ship. Customs enforces the rules and laws that Parliament and Cabinet set. The exemptions for visas are by the Minister of Immigration and the exemptions for jobs are by the Minister for Economic Development. The honourable member who has been a member for many, many decades—more than me—should know if he was to put down this kind of question who the right Minister is to ask about these sorts of issues. . .
The government’s insistence on its own arbitrary and inconsistent definition of essential during the alert level 4 cost more jobs and did much more damage to the economy than had any business that could operate safely been permitted to do so.
Its refusal to let this boat when the crew has been isolated at sea for more than two weeks, are prepared to be tested and if necessary quarantined, shows it hasn’t learned from that.
There are plenty of other examples of the immigration lottery:
The Avatar film crew has been allowed in but there’s still no certainty over whether America’s Cup crews will be.
Dairy farmers are desperate for migrant staff to return:
. . . Ryan Baricuatro has worked on McFarlane’s 550-cow family farm near Carew, west of Ashburton, for seven years.
In early March, with no cows on the farm following the cull and Baricuatro’s wife due to have a baby in the Philippines, McFarlane encouraged him take some leave and return to his home country.
“We didn’t expect him to be gone for two months and not knowing when he’ll be back is tough,” McFarlane said.
“With his knowledge of the farm and the way we operate, he’ll be integral to getting us back and running after Mycoplasma bovis and at calving. He’s virtually irreplaceable for us, we’re desperate to get him back.” . .
Geraldine farmer Tom Hargreaves shares McFarlane’s concerns.
Last May, his sheep and beef farming family bought the property next door and hired two staff, including Uruguayan Patricia Grilli, to run a 420-cow dairy operation.
After a successful first season on the farm, Grilli took time off to return to Uruguay for her father’s surprise birthday celebrations. . .
Despite their best efforts, including providing Grilli with a letter from her employer and a lawyer, she was turned away by customs officials at the airport in Uruguay.
That’s left Hargreaves worried and his team stretched thin to cover Grilli’s role through winter.
“We don’t really know what’s happening. Nothing has been shown to us, so we’re really in the dark and getting more and more nervous,” he said.
“The dairy farm should start up from August 1, but we really needed her over winter as well. Our dairy farm manager didn’t have a day off and the sheep and beef guys would help out but only he and Patricia know the milking shed.” . .
As of Wednesday, DairyNZ was aware of at least 40 skilled workers who had taken ill-timed holidays and are now unable to get back into New Zealand.
DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle agreed it could become a human and animal welfare issue if dairy farms were understaffed or had staff with the wrong skill-sets come calving.
As well as the workers stuck offshore, the industry was facing a much bigger problem if lower skilled workers already in the country couldn’t get their visa extended, he said. . .
It’s not just workers who can’t get in.
Schools and universities could be attracting foreign fee-paying pupils and students from the northern hemisphere to start study in July but they too have yet to gain permission for entry.
Eric Crampton discussed why getting safe entry at the border matters:
The government seems to have everything backwards currently. It results in horrible inequities and the usual amounts of muppetry because they’re starting at the thing from the wrong end.
Right now, if you want to enter New Zealand and you’re not a returning resident or citizen, you have to convince the Minister that you’re important enough to be let in. That kind of regime was hard to avoid during the worst part of lockdown because you also needed exemptions from piles of other mobility restrictions if you were coming in as an essential worker to fix Wellington’s sewer pipes. But it’s got things the wrong way around now that lockdown is over. Instead, the principle should be that if you can enter safely, you’re allowed in – with no sign off from the Minister unless that were somehow already required for whatever visa you’d be coming in on.
Starting from the economic necessity of getting particular people in has the government picking winners – it’s the aristocracy of pull all over again. James Cameron has pull; some poor guy whose pregnant wife is here in New Zealand while he’s in Australia doesn’t. Because being allowed in is a function of their having the Seal Of Approval, safety gets less consideration than it should. Tom Hunt’s story from yesterday of quarantine-bound Avatar film crews mingling in hotel reception with regular guests – that kind of muppetry absolutely cannot be allowed to happen. And maybe it didn’t – the story relied on a non-quarantined guest’s reckon that the crowd she went through at reception was that film crew. But it is the kind of thing that’s more likely to happen if the guiding principle is “Movies are important and Avatar Sequels about that main Avatar and the other Avatar – that’s what matters and it matters so much that we’ll pay them tons of money to make those movies here”
You need to flip it.
If people can come in safely, they should be allowed in. . .
The government was too slow to close the borders before the lockdown and too slow to insist on quarantine for anyone who came in.
Now it’s gone to the opposite extreme with arbitrary and inconsistent exemptions instead of working on the safety principle.
There would be a slight risk of someone bringing Covid-19 with them but providing everyone who comes in was required to quarantine at their own expense, the risk and cost would be minimal when compared with the benefits of businesses and jobs saved.
It would also give us some hope that it was able, and willing, to learn from its mistakes.