Friday, October 12, 2012

Reply to article in master painters newsletter Volume 65 > Number 4 > August 2012

Having read the article ’Slashed painting rates trigger householder complaints’ I was prompted to share some observations of a ‘Jaffa’ working in Christchurch over the past year.

I decided to set up a team of staff in Christchurch for a few reasons. Mostly, I wanted to be part of the rebuild and to contribute to something that I was anticipating would be more fruitful and interesting than the normal Auckland rush, rush, rush. Despite living in Auckland, the earthquake had been felt closely, with family being affected by the February quake with one members house being in the red zone. I had therefore some first-hand experience of the impact the quake had on people’s lives.

Since May 2011, I have had anything between 5 to 14 staff working on a number of different projects as sub-contractors to other Christchurch based painters.

The opportunity of the rebuild has opened the flood gates for all and sundry to migrate south and set themselves up as a painter to take advantage of the rates and opportunities. Not unexpectedly this has resulted in unscrupulous people turning up, looking to make money out of the situation. I have seen all the brightly coloured, sign written new vans, talked to some of these operators about their new business and some of my staff have been poached. They are there for the money and nothing else. This isn’t a new dynamic as I have seen operators like this come and go in Auckland. They don’t contribute to the overall acceptance of our association being perceived as a ‘professional association’, so what can we do to address this situation? Not sure I have the answer, but no one will be able to stop the flow of people choosing to set up as operators that don’t have the experience of the trade that is required by Master Painters.

In response to the statement ‘the pricing edict from Fletchers and EQC would further open the door to industry cowboys with increasing numbers of untrained plasterers and painters moving in Christchurch to fill the skilled labour shortage’. The influx of people setting up as operators has happened. This will continue to happen once the work fully comes on stream and there will be people from all over the world descending on Christchurch looking to have their piece of the pie.

This will happen regardless of the position of Fletchers. I’m not surprised by the stand they have taken, in an attempt to try and rein in the increasing expenditure they face for the rebuild.

If we look at what has happened in Auckland following the boom of business over the past number of years, we have seen things get tighter and tighter with fierce competition on price. I tend to work predominately in one market, new commercial with one particular main contractor that I have a solid business relationship with. I offer a particular service to them and they pay accordingly for this. I know many other painters are similar and up until recently the market was big enough to accommodate us all. Our skill level is defined by how quickly we can complete a project under increasingly tighter time frames. Our skills are specialised, with the work being repetitive as we do the same type of work from one project to the next.

I face increasing pressure from other painters including Master Painters that deliberately lower their rates to win work in our market. Over the last couple of years, one member in particular has driven the rates down without any consideration for others. By driving down price, the business employs un-skilled staff and cowboys to undertake work.

I would imagine members from other areas can probably recount similar stories. This I think is part and parcel of our world and I don’t think there is anything we can do to change this type of behaviour. It will be about how we can operate smarter to make money from the work we do. In these types of markets, we need to be careful about how we approach business investment. If people have chosen to base their business model on what the original prices were in Christchurch, thinking that the situation would stay the same, then I suspect they are now looking at those new vans and thinking it wasn’t such a good idea.

Many of us Jaffas will remember what that was like in Auckland many years ago, before the influx of migrant labour and the boom of hundreds of major projects around the Auckland region. We had to adapt to compete and this is what Canterbury is now facing. How does it tackle the massive rebuild with its existing labour force is not a question we need to ask because we know it cannot. So the question is how do we work together as Master Painters to create a united front to have rates paid that reflect the cost of the work in the environment where it is being undertaken, and make a profit. I think comments like ‘ We do not see the situation changing anytime soon with the main parties are treating legitimate and professional contractors in the manner described above” doesn’t consider the way in which Main Contractors operate.

Having set up in Christchurch, I wanted to join the Canterbury Association, so that I could contribute and participate like I have done in Auckland. I was surprised to learn that there was an expectation by the National Office, that I would need to pay the full fees in Canterbury (inclusive of the fees that go to the National Office). This means to operate in two centres, there is an expectation that I contribute 2 lots of fees to the National Office. I had expected to contribute to the Canterbury Association, but thought that this wouldn’t include the contribution to the National Office. So to be a member of both locations, I now have two separate numbers.

If the Association is expecting to have ‘legitimate and professional contractors’ from other areas working in Christchurch, then it appears that this isn’t being encouraged by expecting members to pay twice to the National Office to do this. As an Association wanting to promote professionalism in the future work in Christchurch, we probably need to start with the practice of our own Association before we point the blame at others.