Auckland's City Rail Link, major Watercare project in employment tug-of-war as shortage of specialist staff causes problems

An unusual employment tug-of-war has developed between two of Auckland's major building projects.

The City Rail Link and a major Waterare project both need the same set of skilled workers, but the issue is there's only enough staff in the country for one of the tunnels.

Both projects need the specialised TBM tunnel boring machine operators, which the City Rail Link currently has. Newshub has learned those staff are now subject to poaching attempts from Watercare's central interceptor project because they can't get the skilled workers from overseas quickly enough.

"Watercare is a very big company, it has a big impact on Auckland and New Zealand so I don't know why they didn't advocate a lot harder to get them in," Northern Amalgamated Workers Union secretary Maurice Davis says.

"If the Wiggles can get in, why can't these TBM operators get in."

Davis says with one council project competing with another, it's a bidding war for staff and there are big offers.

"It's rumours [how much more they're offering to pay], but it's something between $20,000 to $100,000."

But he says that is small change compared to the cost of the machine, which is worth tens of millions of dollars, sitting there without the workers to get it started. 

"It could potentially damage both projects because it could slow them both down."

There are fears this could cost ratepayers more, but Auckland Mayor Phil Goff wouldn't comment on that. In a statement, he said: "I have no knowledge or oversight over the recruitment practices of the private sector companies that are carrying out this work."

It comes down to the battle of two tunnels. One tunnel, the CRL, confirming to Newshub its workers are being targeted, saying there's demand for those with skills that can be transferred to other projects. And then there's Watercare's Central Interceptor, which acknowledges that with border restrictions in place, the job market is highly competitive.

The Amalgamated Workers Union says for either tunnel to have a light at the end, there will have to be some kind of sharing of staff, but it's an exercise both time-critical projects could do without.