Cherie Howie

Cherie Howie is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Weta's foreign imports worry unions

Hobbit drive for foreign talent casts doubt on film's Kiwi commitment

An Immigration spokeswoman said they would consult unions and Work and Income before making a decision on Weta's application.
An Immigration spokeswoman said they would consult unions and Work and Income before making a decision on Weta's application.

Foreign workers are being targeted for more than 500 visual-effects jobs for the production of the next mega-movie in The Hobbit series.

Wellington-based special-effects giant Weta Digital, co-owned by Sir Peter Jackson, has asked Immigration New Zealand for approval in principle to outsource 526 positions.

Weta says most are just extensions to visas that are about to expire and the company has a great record of hiring Kiwis, but Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly is questioning the company's commitment to the local industry.

Apart from ads on the company website, she could not find evidence Weta had let Kiwis know opportunities were available, and questioned why another application was being made when Weta asked for 369 temporary work visas last year.

"They've done very little to bridge that gap. They don't want to invest in (our) people."

But Weta general manager Tom Greally said the company had proved its commitment to this country - 70 per cent of its 1,100-strong workforce were New Zealand citizens or residents. The temporary work visas were for roles that would be spilt between about 140 new employees and 250 people who were already working for the company, but who needed new visas.

"We're sensible business people," Greally said. "We wouldn't go out looking for people offshore and pay all the cost of bringing them here if we had equally qualified Kiwis here.

"Those Kiwis that are experienced and living here and working in this industry, they're either working here or we know about them."

The company also used Seek and other job websites to promote positions, and toured universities to keep in contact with Kiwi talent.

South Seas Film, Television, Animation and Photography School director Gerben Cath had not heard about any qualified Kiwis being shut out, but lamented the drop in trainee roles across the feature-film sector. Former graduates Jabez Olssen and Brigitte Yorke had risen to the top of their fields after taking trainee positions with Sir Peter in his early films.

But Greally said Weta regularly took on juniors and trainees, and the roles were only offered to those living in New Zealand.

An Immigration spokeswoman said they would consult unions and Work and Income before making a decision on Weta's application.

"Previous dealings with the company have demonstrated they will always employ New Zealanders if they have the right skills, and that they pay staff at recognised international industry standards."

Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills and Employment Steven Joyce said the number of people training in visual imaging, computer graphic design and animation was up from 1,100 nine years ago to 4,000 last year.

"The question is, are you prepared to bring in a few hundred people to ensure everyone else gets a chance to participate in those movies and get the downstream effects of those people living and working here?

"I'd say it's definitely worth it," Joyce said.

- Herald on Sunday

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