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Fire in the Sky – Smoke in the city

Written By: - Date published: 7:28 am, October 25th, 2019 - 20 comments
Categories: business, capitalism, health and safety, Unions, workers' rights - Tags: , ,

From Joe Carolyn at Unite Union.

Workers in SkyCity have just come through a traumatic few days. The massive fire at the Convention Centre was seen by many of our Christian union members as an act of God – “Babylon is burning”. A company that has invested so much in property and so little in staff, seems to have been judged.

The convention centre itself was worth over $700 million. The delays to it netted the company $40 million. They sold the carpark for $220 million. They sold Darwin for $188 million, and they made a profit this year of $171 million. This is a company with over half a billion dollars in the bank, if you add those figures up, and yet it begrudges 3000 workers $20 million between them to Bring Back the Weekend [time and a half for being forced to work unsocial hours]. When workers ask for $20 million it sounds big but compare that to, say, the piece of land that SkyCity bought down in Queenstown, that they will be building a hotel on. That piece of land cost $15 million. So there’s loads of money for property projects and big flagship things. But there’s nothing at all for the workers. Unless you want to be an Etu style union and go for a 3 percent pay deal. We don’t.

Workers in New Zealand are fighting back, whether they’re nurses, teachers or bus drivers and workers in the private sector where they’re lower paid workers who need a lot more than 2 or 3 percent to pay rent, never mind buy houses. So that’s why we went for the Back to the Weekend campaign with them. But the last couple of days have clarified, like hot melting steel, the difference between them and us. Where they value making money more than people’s lives. And the staggered and cascaded evacuation of the building when we were facing hazard shows you everything you need to know about this company, that they were trying to keep the money-making side of things open for as long possible when it was very clear there was a major threat to our health and safety.

NOT the fire. Not the fire. It was the smoke.

It was the smoke we were breathing, which people could smell on the gaming floor when I first hit there about 1.45pm. The carpark I arrived into was already heavy with particles and toxins. I just kept thinking the whole way through the blur of activity that we had arrived in a 9/11-style situation. There was black smoke up there, people coughing in the lifts, and I’m going ‘we just need to continue doing what we have to do’. We had to continue trying to get people out as quickly as possible. I was trained, and I think most people are trained, that when you see smoke, you get out of there. Get out, get as many people as you can, check all the doors, check all the seclusion spots and make sure everybody is out as quick as possible. No time to get your keys, your things… just get out of the building. But I think SkyCity management were like, ‘the fire was in another building…’

The corridor where the union office is also has the health and safety hub beside it. And the H&S hub came down and we all cracked out masks together, as many as we could. The masks we were giving out to people I discovered were less than nothing, they’re dust masks. They don’t protect you from fire, from particles. Perhaps the bigger bits but not the fine particles. And that’s the stuff that kills you. If you look at the police down there they’re wearing proper sealed masks with filters on either side and that’s what you need for workers. You need 1000 of those in a workplace like that if there was a risk of fire and people are waiting in a corridor for a bit. Now they cost $80, multiply that by 1000 and that’s $80,000 – but guess what? That’s what it costs for a workplace to be safe. And if we’re like a canary in the mine here, then every workplace in New Zealand should have proper breathing masks, not dust masks, in the event of a fire.

Between the time we arrived at 1.40pm and maybe 4pm I was trying to actively shut down as much of the place as possible. I raised the alarm on the gaming floor, where people were playing blackjack, poker. And I yelled ‘Do you smell smoke in here!!’ Everybody knew, you could smell and see the smoke. The workers wanted to go. The workers replied ‘Yes!!’ Then we need to go! Then the managers came over and said ‘Joe, stop agitating. Stop your members shouting at us, we’ve got a plan’. Well, if you’ve got a plan, let’s go!

Their plan was cascaded closure, bit by bit. Keeping sections of the place open. Down in Federal Street all those signature restaurants were still open, Masu, the Depot, the Grill, Federal Deli. All still open. I took some of those workers out and I pointed to the sky, where it was black with smoke and said ‘I don’t think anyone’s going to come and get coffee today. I think most people are getting out of this area and I think you should too.’ The Asian migrant workers in Masu were clearly terrified. The Dms looked confused. And they’re like ‘Well we haven’t had any instructions from management’. And I say ‘Well I’m a union health and safety officer and I’m telling you now, move! Let’s go. Because that’s what the police are saying and there’s a police commander and a fire brigade commander trying to close down that street and evacuate it.’

It was worse than that. Until a quarter to six there were workers, working in a convention centre across the street in Federal where there was a convention of the NZ institute of Financial Services or something like that, and these people could see smoke, the clients could see smoke and some of them started leaving but there was no clear instruction like ‘Sorry this conference is over; we need to evacuate this building’ until 5.46pm. FOUR hours after the original fire. Because again, I think they think the hazard is fire not the stuff that people are breathing.

There was an [interview] done yesterday, on Seven Sharp with an atmospheric chemist who works in the University of Auckland who went down and took a sample of the air there for 12 hours and came back with filters. And he compared the normal filter you get in Auckland, which has a bit of stuff in it but still fairly white, with a completely black filter. The people in 9/11 got sick not because they got burnt, but because of the stuff they were breathing in. If the company was allowing workers to breathe this stuff in for four hours, they’ve been criminally negligent. If they thought that dust masks were safe enough for us, then they’ve been criminally negligent. And if there weren’t enough masks for all the workers in that place, then they’ve been criminally negligent. And that’s where we are at. Huge anger from our workers.

SkyCity is trying to force people back tonight even though yesterday they said they could have a full day off today. The benefit of being in a union in situations like this, is that we know when a contract is a contract. And that was the contract they made yesterday. Our workers have made plans to be with their families and so on so we’ll stick to that. And it shows you, like with Back to the Weekend campaign, this contemptuous disregard for workers’ plans, for their own family time. It’s ‘oh we’ve just changed our mind’. Well no you haven’t actually. There’s a union here who will take you up on this. And you also haven’t given us the health and safety report. We need to be satisfied. And we need to be involved. We’re not just an afterthought that you get a tick from.

You need to listen to us about our health and safety concerns actually because we are the workers. Corporate is not going back until Tuesday but we’re going in today to clean up for you? I don’t think so. What are we touching? Have you got Hazmat suits for us? Have you got proper breathing apparatus? You say it’s fine but… The police don’t know, civil defence doesn’t know, when it’s safe to go back. So we can’t go back on the say-so of SkyCity. We need an independent set of eyes on this. And it shouldn’t just be corporate deciding.

20 comments on “Fire in the Sky – Smoke in the city ”

  1. Paaparakauta 1

    You deserve credit for there being no casualties in its initial phases, but it may be a while before the whole story comes out at the inquiry.

  2. Gosman 2

    Ummm…. 20 million staffing costs is an additional ongoing cost per year. The other costs you are bringing up are one off capital costs. You are not Apples and Oranges here.

    • Wensleydale 2.1

      That's the spirit, Gossie. Let the people choke on toxic airborne filth while you count beans. It's all about returns to shareholders.

  3. And on workers and their pay in general. Scoop have this.


    While thousands of Kiwis enjoy a well-earned long weekend, thousands of others can only imagine what a 40-hour week would feel like… (My bold.)

    Decades spent allowing the unfettered market to determine the rules governing this country’s workplaces have left New Zealanders working some of the longest hours in the developed world…

    "Labour Weekend is about spending time with loved ones, it’s about cricket and beers at the beach, but it’s also about remembering how hard previous generations fought to enjoy any time off at all," says Erin Polaczuk, National Secretary of the Public Service Association….

    Consultation on the government’s latest FPA [Fair Pay Agreement] discussion paper closes in late November, and union members around New Zealand are growing impatient to see concrete proposals on the table.

    The independent Fair Pay Agreement Working Group released its recommendations in December 2018, and the PSA calls on the government to implement them….

    "Too many low paid New Zealanders either survive by working well over 40 hours a week, or struggle to get by with less than 40 hours a week guaranteed," says Ms Polaczuk.

    "Nobody should live in poverty, and certainly not anyone ready and able to work full time. It’s time for those standing in the way of fair pay and conditions to get with the programme, listen to the voices of low paid Kiwis struggling to get by, and make those election promises a reality."

  4. weka 4

    Lots of good points in this piece. So disappointing that NZ still won't use a precautionaary principle. Looks like the same with the water in the basement they're pumping into the ocean when they still don't know what the levels of toxicity are. One of the beaches was declared hazardous yesterday. Nature, workers, all fodder. Fuck capitalism.

    • veutoviper 4.1

      "Looks like the same with the water in the basement they are pumping into the ocean when they still don't know what the levels of toxicity are."

      Your comment; my bold.

      It pays to check whether you are up to date before making such claims.

      Since 6.45am this morning RNZ have been reporting that:

      The 8 million litres of water in the basement of the SkyCity convention centre has been deemed safe enough to be pumped into the wastewater system rather than straight out to sea. …

      Testing is continuing, however:

      Nick Vigar, from Auckland Council's SafeSwim programme, said it was a big relief to instead send the water into wastewater manholes.

      "It was an unknown quantity, to be sure. I guess it gives us some reassurance that the water we did pump into the harbour is not particularly contaminated, but we'll continue to test," he said.

      "We're still waiting for the results of our water tests from [yesterday] and some of those eco-toxicology tests, which [look at] the impact on organisms. We won't know that for something like three days."

      Full RNZ report here: https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/401734/millions-of-litres-of-water-in-flooded-skycity-centre-carpark-to-head-into-wastewater

      • weka 4.1.1

        so they still don't know what the toxicity is, but have now found a way to divert to the waste water instead of the storm water system? How much was put into the ocean already? Is the beach still considered hazardous?

        My point stands. Yesterday they were saying that they had to empty the basement urgently and were sending it to the stormwater/ocean until they could figure out how to divert to the wastewater. The ocean was expendable, in similar ways to the workers as Carolan is describing.

        • veutoviper

          Re quantities etc, have you actually read the RNZ report?

          Read it. Some information there at the end and RNZ are constantly updating their reports in their hourly news.

          • weka

            i don't think it says in the RNZ link above. It's good they've diverted now but again my point is that yesterday emptying the water was seen as more important than protecting the environment. Likewise the workers.

            • veutoviper

              On the right hand side of the page in the RNZ link I put up above there is a link to an earlier RNZ report yesterday titled "Sky City fire – where will 8 million litres of water go to? "

              I suggest you read it as it also addresses why they released some water yesterday.

              Hint – to prevent higher contamination; and remove risk to the firefighters.

              An extract:

              Auckland Council's SafeSwim programme manager Nick Vagar told Checkpoint that getting the water out of the basement was definitely "urgent".

              Listen to the full interview with Nick Vagar here duration6′ :04″

              He said they're concerned about combustion products as a result of the fire, for example volatile organic compounds and hydrocarbons, which they are running tests for at the moment.

              "Also our concern around the basement is that as cars start to float, that we'll potentially get more contamination than we have at the moment, so part of this is managing risk to minimise any more contamination to that water.

              "We understand this is causing a hazard for the firefighters in the basement … they’ve advised us the need to get the water out as rapidly as possible."

              • weka

                thanks, that's a good explanation.

                My thinking at the moment is that we will need an indepth national discussion about the amount of serious pollutants used in the building industry. This is a long overdue conversation, and should have been had post Chch quakes, but maybe now we can start to think about it.

  5. Gordon 5

    Somewhat ironic that the movie/drama on the Ballantynes fire appeared just on a month ago illustrating exactly the same issue as at the heart of this piece.

    • Not quite the same, delayed action to get ladies on upper floors out, accounting ledgers first, and a huge and ghastly loss of life. One of the top guys got out across the roof of the Ballantyne building. But the women were stuck in their long dresses, not easy to move in. (As I remember it.)

      A good account from the Christchurch library. (By the way the library seems to offer excellent service whenever i have things to do with it.)


      • Gordon 5.1.1

        True and fortunately no loss of life this time -but the basic rule should be if there's smoke there there is a high probability of a fire so get the hell out of it asap until the situation is clarified. And I think we have all seen the ads etc showing just how quickly a fire can spread.

  6. Dawn Trenberth aka The Fairy Godmother 6

    To its credit Auckland Council sent workers home or to other places to work at cancelled its symposium at the Aotea centre. I guess most of its workers belong to the PSA.

  7. cleangreen 7

    Where are the toxicologists and Occupational hygenists at here and NZ Ministry of health and Labour?

    During my chemical exposure/poisoning incident in Toronto our US/Canadian Electrical union workers and Canadian Communication union safety officers all came to sample the air quality and workplace safety issues inside the CBC when we all fell sick from Chemical exposures.there.

    Then Labour Canada came to do air sampling inside the building then Ontario labour department also came to sample afterwards.

    Here I sense that there is a distinct lack of safety rules being observed here similar to the pike river disaster all over again.so there needs to be a royal investigation into this disaster.

    I feel that people are already harmed by all contaminants emitted from burning substances inside that huge building.

    Unbelievable, – as where was MBIE "work safe"? .

  8. Janet 8

    Thank you Joe…. Who else would have reported this very revealing angle of the story.

  9. I'm again thinking of workers and Labour Day, a little off topic but Labour Day is fast approaching so this post is the nearest in theme.


    Lavinia, Auckland security guard:

    "I work five days a week . . . 12-hour shifts so that's 60 hours a week. It's a hard job and long hours but I don't have a choice.

    "I have to work those hours to pay the bills. I earn the minimum wage and I have five kids. I finish work and come home and then I have to cook for them.

    "And these days, young boys, they join a gang, that happens when parents spend too much time at work and they're not at home. It's happened to me, one of my boys."

    First comment of 247 – comes up with a negative response based on theoretical figures so that the jerk doesn't have to think seriously about other citizen's difficulties.

    Sherbert2 If they are both frequently doing 80 hour weeks plus wff before tax they are taking in about $4,500 per week.The real story would have been to stand beside her and see where it went.

    (And anyone who makes the stupid comment that she shouldn’t have five kids, I’d like to give you a kick. And probably you would be a male, so wouldn’t have the monthly opportunity to make another person.)

    And noticing recently, it is so interesting how many males are opting out of the masculine role and wanting to be women. It shows how low the male role has sunk for providing a meaningful, balanced life, with attention to just being a good, happy, person in society.)
    (There are a number of related links in this one.)

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