Health and safety committees for thousands of workers in managed isolation hotels have finally been set up, eight months after the sites began operating.
But it will be another month until the worker representatives are properly trained up and have actual legal powers to make the workplaces safer.
A unionist says she had been “terrified” early on for the low-paid – mostly Māori or Pasifika, often older cleaners, and other quarantine workers – when PPE was lacking. But that now, at last, government officials were meeting their legal obligations.
“The time it took to actually get through to them was far too long,” said Unite Union’s hotel organiser Shanna Reeder.
“It should have been top of the list. It should have been obvious.”
More than 4000 staff work in managed isolation and quarantine facilities, across 32 hotels, looking after 6000 returnees currently.
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment took charge of managed isolation and quarantine (MIQF) facilities in July, in a three-month-long transition process.
Two OIA responses show that officials took until November to put an overarching health and safety plan in place.
The ministry has now set up a worker participation agreement as required by law, though only recently has each hotel’s consultation committee been nominated and established.
The way all this was done had not been fully documented due to the pace of change, according to the OIA response.
Unite union’s assistant secretary Gerard Hehir said the response was too slow in a situation made more urgent by the new, more infectious variant of Covid overseas.
“The risk in New Zealand is lower – we want to keep it that way – [but] the risk in those facilities is greater now than it ever has been,” Hehir said.
“Whatever’s happening, needs to happen now.”.
Unite union has 400 hotel worker members who mostly work in the 32 hotels.
What began in April – when isolation was made mandatory for returnees – with “a lot of fear” had stabilised and improved a lot in the last two months, including regular meetings between unions and officials, Shanna Reeder said.
“I haven’t found any recent cases of people not having appropriate PPE. And generally, people are just feeling a lot safer,” she said.
However, it would be the end of January before the consultation committee members were trained under the Health and Safety at Work Act.
“Those workers have only been informed this week,” Reeder said.
“If you’re not trained, then you don’t have certain powers under the law to actually implement change in the workplace.
“So they do need to complete that training as soon as possible … on things like recognising hazards, reporting hazards, and then what can be done about it.”
Each managed isolation hotel must have its own private health and safety plan, in addition to the ministry being responsible for the over-arching plan.
That plan was “currently rolling out”, Shayne Gray, MBIE general manager of service quality, said in a statement.
The OIAs show the plan was tested in October for “its practicality as a working document”, then reissued at the end of November, with regular reviews intended from here-on.
The ministry was also still working on improving incident reporting, Gray said.
“They’re getting better at it, but it’s always been catch-up,” said Unite’s Gerard Hehir.
The key was staff engagement, not box-ticking, to ensure immediate feedback, “not ending up taking months to actually figure out that there’s a problem”, he said.
Workers on ground nominees
The worker nominees to committees were from “the floor, doing the job,” said Reeder.
“They’re not people, you know, sitting in an office.”
Security guard and nurse representatives were also on the committees.
At two hotels, senior management had tried to nominate themselves to worker positions, but this was successfully resisted, as management had its own seats, she said.
The strain of the speed of the Covid response is evident in what workers were told and asked about early on, the OIAs show.
Between 9 April and 13 July when MBIE took over, there was no central record kept of incident reporting “given the MIQFs were set up at pace”, one OIA response said.
The ministry was currently consolidating “retrospective” incident reporting gathered by other agencies that had managed any of the facilities since 1 July.
As for worker consultation, “as the government’s Covid-19 response was all done at pace, there was not time available for thorough consultation”.
Safety standards were discussed “with operations”, and the groups with HSWA duties were “grown organically from staff working at MIFs rather than their senior managers”, said head of managed isolation Air Commodore Darryn Webb in an OIA response.
“Due to the speed at which this was done, I am unable to provide documentation.”
In a statement, a managed isolation and quarantine spokesperson said safety of staff was critical to ensure the safety of the community.
“This agreement between MIQ and unions to work together is an important milestone and reflects both our commitment to creating a robust MIQ system to keep Covid-19 out of New Zealand and the importance of excellence in wellbeing, health and safety in the workplace for all of its workers.
“The effective participation of workers and their unions across the entire workforce, whether directly employed or contracted, will assist in protecting the health and safety of the workforce and the health of the wider public.”
The spokesperson said staff are trained in infection prevention, have daily health checks, and regular testing.
When RNZ asked MBIE how it had fulfilled its HSWA obligations for health monitoring plans at the hotels, it referred the question to the Health Ministry, which in turn said it did not hold this information, and did not believe any other agency held it either.
MBIE said it managed safety matters at isolation hotels, and individual district health boards monitored health matters
The hotels themselves were assessed for suitability by health and quarantine officials, had to have spaces for testing rooms and medical facilities, and a risk register was set up for each one, along with a security assessment, and an evacuation plan worked out with Fire and Emergency.