5 Oct 2018

Waikeria workers' camp slammed as 'a prison to build a prison'

6:52 pm on 5 October 2018

A planned workers' camp for staff who will build the new Waikeria Prison has been labelled "a prison to build a prison".

Waikeria prison

Waikeria Prison. Photo: RNZ/ Nick Monro

Otorohanga Community Board has approved in principle the proposed camp on the outskirts of the King Country town, which would be home to about 300 people during a three-year $750 million project.

About 300 workers would call the sports fields of Island Reserve to the south of Otorohanga home if the proposed camp gets the go-ahead.

Not only would they be doing 12-hour shifts, six days a week, but - according to the community board's agenda - they would be subject to daily alcohol and drug testing.

Australian construction firm CPB Contracting won the job to build a new 500-bed high-security wing and 100-bed mental health facility.

It wants to bring in prefabricated units sleeping four people each, as well as a communal dining area, lounge and gym for the workers to use during the project.

E tū union coordinator Ron Angel said the idea of a workers' camp was "beyond belief".

"Why do we have to have a camp to house 300 people which has daily drug and alcohol testing? It is just a prison to build a prison and that's not right."

Mr Angel said he found the proposed daily drug and alcohol testing idea "offensive".

"To me that really does smack of, 'Everybody's guilty until they can prove themselves innocent,'" he said. "I find that objectionable."

He said the long hours were unreasonable and would create just as much risk as if they were using drugs or alcohol.

Mr Angel said if the camp did go ahead, the company would need to accommodate all workers' needs.

"Are they going to have conjugal caravans? We're all human."

Otorohanga District Council mayor Max Baxter disagreed that it would be an unpleasant environment.

"I think they're doing everything they can to ensure it's a great environment to work in."

There has been some opposition from people whose houses border the reserve where the camp is to be built.

And Mr Baxter acknowledged he would not be happy if it went up next door to his house, but said it was important not to lose sight of the benefits of having so many people coming to town.

"It is my position to look at the positives and mitigate the negatives. If it goes up next to my house I'm going to be asking, 'How are you going to mitigate the problems?'

"Those questions need to be answered - and they will be answered," he said.

He called the company managing the project "professional, well-proven" and said it had had similar camps in the past.

Mr Baxter said the company was going to give local workers first-dibs on the jobs and the camp could be an opportunity for growth and could support the local economy.

"We've got to keep our eyes open as a community to see what opportunities is there. We talk about small town New Zealand and opportunity for growth.

"The expansion of Waikeria Prison is within our district. There's going to be up to 800 workers there at any one day, 300 of those need to be housed in temporary accomodation, and the construction company looked at us as an option."

He said if all issues are properly mitigated the camp could be a "wonderful opportunity" to support local eateries and churches, and expose Otorohanga to 300 people.

National Party corrections spokesman David Bennett said there was only one person to blame for the proposed camp and that was Kelvin Davis, the Minister who signed off on the Public-Private Partnership deal to build the down-sized Waikeria prison.

"I would imagine his contract would bind him, and he's probably signed an agreement which enables this to happen," he said.

"It's just very embarrassing for the government considering they were against PPPs in prisons. And then you look at the conditions they're imposing and they are very different from what a Government would be expected to do."

He said the individual contracts will be between the Australian firm CPB Contracting and construction workers, but there would be a "moral obligationk" on the part of the Labour Party.

"With looking at the law changes they're wanting to make around industrial relations and such."

CPB Contracting still needs to apply for resource consent to be able to go ahead with the camp.

The company declined to be interviewed.

'A jolly good idea'

Locals were relaxed about the plan.

Ninety-year old Nan Owen, who is a bit of a local identity in Otorohanga, visited the park on Friday to see for herself before making up her mind about the temporary workers village.

"As far as I am concerned after only one day's consideration I think it is a jolly good idea bringing people into Otorohanga."

Mrs Owen thought some of them might even stay long-term.

"I don't think it has any major disadvantages actually because it's not going to cost Otorohanga anything."

The Otorohanga District Council confirmed that all costs associated with developing the temporary village will be CPB Contracting's responsibility, including returning the site back at the end of the prison contract.

There is housing around one side of the park.

People living close by had mixed views.

Warren Kopa-Hughes wondered just how many of the proposed 1000 jobs on the prison construction site might actually go to locals.

"I don't reckon there will be many jobs for locals, nah."

Further down Orahiri Terrace was Jess who did not see a problem, but was not necessarily happy about it.

"They got to go somewhere. They need somewhere to stay while they are building the prison."

Amy believed it would provide job opportunities.

"There is not much here for people in the town and there's a housing shortage so why not utilise people who live here already."

Amy's partner, Matthew had some reservations.

"It's fine with all the people coming in but what sort of people are they bringing here?

"Are they trustworthy to come to this town. I know they are here for work but what sort of people are they bringing here," he said.

Brian Wood owns a rental property across the road from the reserve.

"I can't see it being a problem but if there is a problem I am sure the authorities will sort it out I guess."

And on Otorohanga's main street, people seemed relaxed about the idea.

Long-time businessman in town, John Haddad, was one who can see economic benefits.

"We it will mean a lot of extra business for Otorohanga there is no question about that and we have businesses here already catering for people who need to be fed and people who need any services required.

"The infrastructure is already in place so as afar as having to get ready for them, the only thing that needs to get ready is the facility where they will be staying."

Otorohanga Mayor Max Baxter said he understood there were concerns from some locals about the proposal particularly as the news was only filtering through now.

"We are talking a major dump of information on people in a very short time and the natural reaction of people is not fear but it is questioning uncertainty and there is a level of uncertainty because there are so many questions that need answering at this point.

"We have to go through this process to ensure that any of those concerns are mitigated especially for those that feel they are immediately affected."

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