By Charlotte Greenfield
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand is looking offshore for hundreds of workers to rebuild roads, railways and buildings after this month's earthquake amid a shortage of local workers in an overstretched construction industry.
But while importing more workers from countries including South Africa and the Philippines may fill the gap, there are some concerns that it will add to New Zealand's already surging immigration levels, which are in turn fuelling an overheating property market.
Highly-qualified professionals such as engineers could get skilled migrant visas that allow them to settle in the country - adding some extra demand to the housing market.
Foreign laborers would usually receive year-long temporary permits to work in New Zealand and are most likely to live in temporary accommodation.
New Zealand was still dealing with the aftermath of the 2011 quake that destroyed much of Christchurch when this month's 7.8 magnitude quake shook the country, killing two people, setting off destructive landslides and cutting of the country's main highway.
"We can't get enough people to fill the demand currently …the earthquakes kick in and you need even more people," said Kevin Everett, director of Building Recruitment, an Auckland-based agency that finds the majority of its workers from overseas, mainly in South Africa.
"We're looking for hundreds of people, in all aspects of the industry."
Other sources of migrants for the construction industry were the Philippines, China and the United Kingdom.
New Zealand's record immigration levels have been a concern for the country's central bank, as the influx of people pushes up house prices but keeps wages low.
The demand for labor in the construction sector will likely cushion any negative impact on wages from an influx of migrant workers, according to economists, although accommodating extra workers could squeeze housing availability unless extensive temporary accommodation is built.
The soaring construction activity from the quakes could also help the RBNZ's bid to boost inflation.
"We're likely going to need to import workers to keep up with that demand," said Christina Leung, senior economist at think-tank the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research.
"The fact that it comes through in stronger population growth means increased housing demand."
Building Recruitment is also trying to attract New Zealand women into the traditionally male-dominated industry to ramp up the number of local workers.
"We see that as an area that we have to start looking at. Women in general should be looking at a career in the building industry, there's never been a better time," said Everett.
The rebuild work from the latest quake is likely to need more than 1,000 people to clear blocked roads and strengthen buildings, according to members of the building and construction industry.
The government estimated that repair work would cost more than NZ$2 billion ($1.40 billion), but some economists have put the bill at closer to NZ$12 billion.
Fletcher Building, the country's largest building company, said it had already held two expos to attract employees from Britain this year. However, spokeswoman Shannon Huse Caldwell said it was too early to tell what impact the latest round of earthquakes would have on labor force requirements.
Almost 10,000 migrants worked in the construction sector as of June, up from 6,000 five years ago according to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, though this was likely to be an undercount as it excluded migrants living in temporary accommodation.
(Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Eric Meijer)