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 busdrivers 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!

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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.

Joe Carolan, SEA Unite Union Convenor at SkyCity.


  1. An excellent article but one that points out all so well the need and greed of managers and the powers that be in say Fletchers to keep the money rolling into their eg Fletchers; multiple bank accounts.

    Out of all this I have absolutely no time or liking of Fletchers. The obsession for profit over the health of workers and individuals is quite disgusting and unacceptable.

    I am sure some will remember the ICI fire of 1984. A number of the fire-fighters who went to fight that blaze ended up with various cancers due to the fumes they breathed in. Todays fire fighters are slightly better protected but unfortunately it’s likely those in the community i.e the ordinary workers around the Sky City Convention Centre did not have the protection of breathing apparatus. Only time will tell what they will come down with.

    But as I have said profit means more than human lives. It’s all part and parcel of putting money/profit before people(the workers). Fletchers will never change because they are permanently married to Profit.

  2. With Labour day coming up a timely reminder of the importance of unions and the ongoing fight that workers face with the increasingly large and multi national companies that many people work for. Probably the most important blog on this site this year. Keep up the struggle Joe

  3. Bernie Sanders says End corporate greed and real change never comes from the top down but the bottom up.

    Really appreciate you giving us a background too what your members have been up against and the tactics of this greedy , cruel corporate organisation.

    Thank Joe

  4. Good subject Joe;
    My story as a Bell Canada Construction site worker during 1992.
    You said it all there, so let me explain.
    “The carpark I arrived into was already heavy with particles and toxins.”

    In 1992 I worked in a building under construction in Toronto called the CBC ‘Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’ opposite the Toronto sky tower and sky dome.

    For six months while working in that CBC building “(without any central air) system working yet” the Construction company “Eastern Construction” said the central air system could not be used as it was because the ‘electronics and the computers’ were not installed.

    So 400 workers faced every day high levels of VOC’s from dangerous two pot epoxy’s and other paints and flooring adhesives and particulates and solvents, at least 40 workers fell sick (me included).

    Since the day my whole systems crashed; including Immune/nervous system/skeletal/muscular and neurological systems had already been damaged to this very day.

    Specialists found the toxins stored in my “adipose tissues” commonly known as fat tissues.

    I had to pay to get a piece of fat taken from my body and sent to a Texas laboratory called “accuchem laboratories” for a GCMS analysis and they found heavy toxins deposited in my body and they found the same in air sample in the building so your workers need a GCMS analysis of their tissues.

    Blood tests are not useful we found and toxicologists there said it was not accurate as the toxins leave the blood systems shortly after exposure where fat/adipose tissue storage is ‘static’ and takes far longer if ever to leave the body.

    After 27yrs later I am still sick medically.

    So please get those workers out now as they are now storing the toxins inside their bodies fat tissues as we speak as we all though we were safe every time we left the CBC building but the damage was already there even though we felt better out of the building the damage was never to leave us healthy again since 1992.

  5. Good on you , Joe Carolan ,… you sock it too em !

    We are not expendable rats for them to B*ll sh*t around with.

    This is New Zealand, – not some chintzy backwater third world banana republic with a Pinochet type dictator. If these corporate elite clowns want people to work for them , then ,…

    A) Pay a decent and realistic wage and / or salary tied in with the actual cost of living . Because once upon a time before Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson it was tied into an actual ‘costs of living index’. Before the 1984 neo liberal treasonist’s lied to the populace.

    And B ) Provide PROPER health apparatus for ALL people onsite because, –

    i ) We’ve already had the Titanic,..

    ii ) We’ve already had Pike River.

    How many more times do we have to remind these self important grabastic pricks, – this aint 1912 , – and we dont tolerate not having enough lifeboats for ALL , and the ones that are only being designated for the toffs only .

    We are not here just for their comfort funds and a cushy retirement just for them !

    They believe in the ideology of user pays?, – well its about time they got the idea into their skulls it cuts both ways.

    Pay up and shut up , chiselers .

    And for those unacquainted with old fashioned plain-speak?

    Here’s the definition:

    (plural chiselers)
    (informal) A cheat; a swindler; a con artist.

  6. BZ Inc is a third world country, they did not even enforce environmental protection laws during this fire, as they had NO readings.

  7. Saftey employer,whoes money is gamble rort,truth,courase its a UNCLEAN SAFE ENVIROMENT TO BE WORKED EXPLOITED IN.the roof fire,aint them exploiter insurance comapanies goin to have a ball,sayin our contract had health and safteymat its knoiwing,as the FLETCHER BOSSES LOOKIN,for those spent workers scape goat.
    Im retired now ,honest,thank fuck,would never have put up with this new casual do as your told work environ,those roof workers,can be called roofers,welding blow torch,this synthetic rubber seeling the joints,under compressed straw,work your time,shift over who!s next,our compleaton penalties have to,no shall be met.As said im retired,proper skilled painter paper hanger,burnt off many wood structured homes in N.Z. SOME also government owned,and every time with a petrol blow or gas torch,two hours afore after burning,have a cuppa,two not down hours,just spark hours hot spots,dare flash up,and i recon,fletchers shift contract get it done on time caused that roof fire,without,time out cooling looking and rubber and straw,sort of like weetbix sugar milk,a perfect mix.Like of course,sky city,should be closed,for at least a week,and if their exploited profits have not insured against their employees being effected and insured against wage loss,shame.

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