The foundations are being laid. Photo: Getty

Building equity into the infrastructure-led recovery for Māori and Pasifika

This is a huge opportunity – and a wero – to demonstrate commitments to diversity, write sector engineers Troy Brockbank, Elle Archer, Sifa Pole and Sina Cotter Tait and Honor Columbus.

Aotearoa is awash with discussion on how we might re-imagine our post-Covid future; what could and should our economy and society look like? The budget announcement of infrastructure spend and training is an chance for the construction industry to develop specific, targeted actions for impact. As Māori and Pasifika engineers working in the construction and infrastructure sector, we’re calling on the industry to build equity into its response for Māori and Pasifika workers. It’s a huge opportunity – and a wero – for our government and industry to demonstrate their recent public commitments to the Diversity Accord.

The construction industry is headed into difficult times, with industry analysts predicting up to a third of jobs at risk. Māori and Pasifika workers are heavy lifters in the industry, over-represented in the lowest-earning tiers of the industry, and exposed to a disproportionate and inequitable share of the recessionary risks. The consequences of this are grim – loss of crucial income and wellbeing for Māori and Pasifika families and communities, with significant downstream effects for our already-marginalised communities. However, the prospect of a well-funded Infrastructure-Led recovery presents the construction industry with a unique opportunity to address these inequities faced by Māori and Pasifika communities in Aotearoa, and to advance its own goals towards a diverse and inclusive industry.

Honor Columbus, Elle Archer, Sina Cotter Tait, Troy Brockbank, and Sifa Pole

What should our industry be doing? The TL:DR

Five ideas for meaningful change:

  1. Expand the criteria for ‘Shovel-Ready Projects’ to consider how these projects will give effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi
  2. Align priority work to the Wellbeing Budget Priorities, by adopting social procurement to select for firms offering employment to, and investing in, Māori and Pasifika workers
  3. Engage with, and increase Māori and Pasifika representation in industry leadership groups
  4. Rebalance the notoriously unfair risk carried by subcontractors and contract/casual labour through smart procurement and grounded risk allocation
  5. Ensure adequate accessibility to opportunities and career paths through innovative skills training and cross-industry partnerships.

Māori and Pasifika in the construction industry

The construction industry is our fifth-largest industry in Aotearoa, a complex ecosystem that employs around 170,000 people. When the industry experiences pressure, the effects are felt particularly hard by Māori and Pasifika due to a double-whammy of over-representation in the industry overall, and an over-concentration of workers in the lowest-earning tiers. Often for Māori and Pasifika families, these workers are breadwinners in large families who have no cushion against the effects of a drop or loss in income.

According to the Statistics NZ Household Labour Force Survey, an estimated 11% of Māori and 10% of Pasifika peoples in NZ (or 35,500 and 16,200 respectively) are employed in the industry. Together we represent approximately 30% of the total workforce, above our population proportion of 24%. However our representation in the industry skews overwhelmingly towards the lowest-earning and most precarious tiers: low-skilled and unskilled contract labour, and self-employed trades working as subcontractors to larger construction firms. In the post-Covid response, larger construction companies are already moving to trim labour costs through wage reductions and/or redundancies. These companies will survive the Covid-19 impact by preserving the health of their top line, at the expense of their most expendable resources: their unskilled and casual labourers, and self-employed subcontractor trades. This is a typical business-as-usual response, but these aren’t typical times – they are extraordinary. For years Māori and Pasifika have been doing a significant amount of the heavy lifting in the industry while missing out on most of the reward. Surely these workers have earned the right to protection from the coming storm.

If we shift our gaze to the highest-earning, highest-power tiers of the of the construction industry, we see that Māori and Pasifika representation in the managerial and professional occupations of the industry is extremely low. Data is difficult to find, but indications exist through professional membership body data. Just over 1% of all Chartered Professional Engineers, and an estimated 4% of Registered Architects identify as Māori and/or Pasifika. (The reasons for low representation in professional and managerial occupations are complex and long-standing – perhaps the subject for another article, another day.) These professional and managerial tiers have the highest earning potential and job security. They are also where key decisions are being made that affect the rest of the industry. The most vocal and powerful groups – such as the Infrastructure Reference Group and the Construction Accord – advising the government on an infrastructure-led recovery are drawn from the managerial and professional tiers of the industry. As Māori and Pasifika are underrepresented in these tiers, it is unsurprising that there is a lack of representation and consideration in these key decision-making groups too.

“It will take courageous leadership by both the industry and community leaders to address the inequitable impacts of Covid-19.” – Sifa Poole, president of South Pacific Professional Engineering Excellence

In response to Covid-19, immediate expressions of industry support were established by government ministers, and in Budget 2020. This support will go a long way to preserving the health of main contractor and consultant firms, their senior professional and managerial staff, and their skilled, permanent employees. These are the firms and people most favourably-positioned to both survive Covid-19, and to take advantage of the opportunities of an Infrastructure-Led Recovery. However, there is a lack of clarity – or accountability – to show how these firms will be passing those benefits through to their suppliers and labourers. Additionally the support is broad and limited in terms of the protection and opportunity that it affords to Māori and Pasifika. We need industry leadership to recognise the inequities within the construction industry, be aware of intersectionality and to develop specific protections and pathways for workers at the lowest-earning tiers of the industry.

What could it look like to consider Māori and Pasifika voices and values in the Covid-19 construction industry and infrastructure sector response?

This is a once in a generation opportunity to change how we think about our industry, calling for commitment, courage and long-term vision.

Government and industry leaders have already developed some great initiatives such as NZTA-Waka Kotahi’s advanced entitlement payment scheme. Construction leaders have been vocal and highly effective in mobilising government support for an infrastructure-led recovery. We say this support also needs to reflect the Government’s Wellbeing Budget 2020 Priorities including: “Lifting Māori and Pacific incomes, skills and opportunities”. We would like to see specific, targeted initiatives for Māori and Pasifika workers both from the government’s agencies, and from within the industry itself.

“One of the criteria for shovel-ready projects should have been to prioritise projects which demonstrated understanding, support and enable aspirations of Māori in relation to urban development, mātauranga Māori, tikanga Māori, kaitiakitanga and cultural values to be exercised” – Troy Brockbank (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Hine, Ngāpuhi), kaitohutohu matua taiao / senior environmental consultant

Mātauranga Māori has a valuable and important role to play in the future infrastructure development of this nation. The fast-tracking of Shovel Ready projects is an opportunity to establish a new way of doing things. We call for a commitment to giving effect to Te Tiriti o Waitangi in infrastructure development, starting with the criteria for Shovel Ready Projects. This means decisionmaking processes to be carried out in partnership with iwi and hapū, and to be founded equitably in kaupapa Māori and mainstream Eurocentric frameworks.

Project procurement is the most powerful lever our government has to effect change for Māori and Pasifika in the construction industry. Infrastructure New Zealand’s inclusion of social procurement as a guideline for the selection of “Shovel Worthy Projects” is excellent. We suggest also attaching well-considered diversity conditions to support Māori and Pasifika inclusion and representation, as a way of aligning with the Budget2020 priority. This isn’t as radical as it sounds – such conditions are becoming commonplace for other outcomes we value, such as environmental sustainability and gender diversity. Critics may point out that this could narrow the supplier pool. It would certainly offer an advantage to innovative and progressive firms who can demonstrate their support for Māori and Pasifika workers and communities – possibly at the expense of other firms who have traditionally dominated the industry and reaped most of the profits. We might also fret about costs indirectly increasing if we award work on a social-outcomes basis, rather than a financial-value or technical-merit basis. This is a topic for robust debate, but in brief – we don’t believe that our industry and our country can afford not to prioritise social outcomes in a nationwide recovery effort. While the price of social conscience might be high, the cost of perpetuating inequity in the long-term is much higher.

Equity also means access to work and skill development. Many of the low-earning tiers still do not have ready access to the marketplaces where work is handed out, leaving them reliant on employers and larger firms. It can be difficult for Māori and Pasifika workers to access traditional training and skills development to open up career progression pathways. The industry has been allocated generous funding in Budget2020. Now it has a window to plan and deliver skill development innovations to help Māori and Pasifika workers build their knowledge base, and create pathways to leadership. This is an area where our larger construction and consultant firms can have major impact: accessibility aids in building a strong foundation for economic, cultural, and ultimately, societal prosperity.

An infrastructure-led recovery will undoubtedly offer many opportunities for leadership and direction, particularly for those people traditionally best-placed and resourced to secure them. We would like to see our industry create pathways to grow Māori and Pasifika industry leadership. This is vital to inject perspective into our industry’s ideas of partnership and collective ways of working, and to breathe fresh life into shared purpose. Inclusion of these voices will enhance and deepen our thinking about industry partnerships, sustainability and regeneration, community empowerment, and the cultivation of cultural responsibility; the kinds of objectives listed against many governance strategic plans in both public and private sectors. Integration of our many voices can only enhance today and tomorrow’s industry culture.

As Minister Kris Fa’afoi has said: “We don’t succeed unless all of us succeed.” These words are resonant today. Protection of the construction industry must include our most vulnerable members and by extension our wider communities – and opportunities must be designed to be extended equitably to all. In the recent Māori Futures Report, Kia Puta Ki Rangiatea, Reaching New Futures, a key insight is the goal of “getting back to normal”, may be the very outcome we need to avoid.

We believe the pathway towards our te pae tawhiti (preferred futures) rests on making an early commitment to work together, as Treaty partners, embracing the strengths of both cultures to create a better future than we have ever experienced before. This is the purest expression of our vision of Rangiātea, drawing upon our tūpuna wisdom and shared strengths to stretch beyond the known to reach a new destination. E kore au e ngaro, he kākano i ruia mai i Rangiātea’’ – Tokona Te Raki

As we re-imagine our future and pave the way for the path ahead, let’s keep in sight that it will be built on the foundations that we are laying now. The government has set the tone for the Covid-19 economic response with the inclusion of the whakataukī, he waka eke noa, in its title. As an industry, let’s use that vision as a target that needs to be met along with other industry objectives and priorities – let’s ensure that we all thrive together.

Troy Brockbank (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Hine, Ngāpuhi) is kaitohutohu matua taiao / senior environmental consultant; Elle Archer (Ngati Tamatera, Ngapūhi, Tuhoe) is a tech industry director and adviser; Sifa Pole (Pasifika-Tonga) is a professional engineer; Sina Cotter Tait (Pasifika-Samoa) is a chartered professional engineer and director; Honor Columbus (Pasifika-I Kiribati) is a structural engineer and infrastructure industry adviser.

The contributors acknowledge their identities as individual industry participants of Māori and/or Pasifika heritage, and do not claim to speak on behalf of a wider collective.



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