Ni-Vanuatu workers say Marlborough vineyard contractor underpaid them

Ni-Vanuatu workers on the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme have taken their pay rate concerns to the Labour ...
SCOTT HAMMOND/FAIRFAX NZ

Ni-Vanuatu workers on the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme have taken their pay rate concerns to the Labour Inspectorate and Immigration New Zealand.

Pacific Island vineyard workers thought coming to New Zealand would be a blessing, but after a season of low pay and broken promises they don't think they will be back.

They say the pay rates set out in the contracts they signed back in Vanuatu have been ignored, leaving them around $300 a week short of what they were earning the season before.

After deductions were taken out for things such as petrol and accommodation, one worker said he was left with as little as $200 a week, far less than what he wanted to take home to his family.

All nine RSE contractors investigated by the Labour Inspectorate in a joint sting last year were found to be compliant ...
RICKY WILSON/FAIRFAX NZ

All nine RSE contractors investigated by the Labour Inspectorate in a joint sting last year were found to be compliant with employment law.

Immigration New Zealand confirmed in a statement they were investigating, but neither they, the Immigration Minister nor the Labour Inspectorate agreed to be interviewed.

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Two of the ni-Vanuatu workers approached Stuff under the condition of anonymity, saying they were fearful of potential repercussions from their employer, who they did not want to name.

A report commissioned by Wine Marlborough showed RSE accredited contractors serviced 75 per cent of the vineyard area in ...
RICKY WILSON/FAIRFAX NZ

A report commissioned by Wine Marlborough showed RSE accredited contractors serviced 75 per cent of the vineyard area in the region.

They alleged workers could be flown home, or their names passed on to recruiters back in Vanuatu, making it difficult to return under the Government-sponsored work scheme.

Both men were in Marlborough under the Recognised Seasonal Employer programme, set up to provide economic assistance to Pacific Island nations while filling a need for seasonal workers.

"I think it's not very fair, because to come here is a blessing, it's a big blessing for us in Vanuatu ... We feel really upset, we feel really bad when they didn't pay us properly," one of the men said.

The ni-Vanuatu man, acting as a spokesperson, said he and about 50 other workers at the same vineyard contracting company were upset by the change in pay rates.

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When they arrived in New Zealand last October, they realised the pay rates set out in their contracts for different vineyard jobs were not being followed. So they approached their supervisor.

"We show our pay slip to them, but they say everything is OK. One day I ask my supervisor in the morning, and he told me this contract is just a guideline," the spokesman said.

One of the contracts sets out a minimum rate for wire lifting of 5 cents, but pay slips presented by the workers showed they were earning about half that, 2.77 cents per lift.

"We are working ... but at the end of the day, no money, because they didn't follow what we see inside the contract," the spokesman said.

Both workers also alleged the company was failing to pay them for some jobs, saying when they did three things, such as weeding, bud rubbing and fruit thinning, they were only paid one rate.

Last season, they had been able to earn up to and sometimes more than $1000 a week, allowing them to send money back home as well as building their savings in New Zealand, the spokesman said.

But after sending money back to his family in Vanuatu this season the worker said he was left with next to nothing in savings. After they finished in May, he said he and some of the other workers might not come back.

After raising their complaints to management, the spokesman said they took their issues to the Labour Inspectorate as well as Kaikoura Labour candidate Janette Walker, who encouraged them to approach a union.

Making complaints was difficult, as many workers were fearful of speaking out because their names could be passed back to recruiters in Vanuatu, risking future employment on the scheme in New Zealand, the spokesman said.

'WORKING THROUGH THE ISSUES'

An Immigration spokesman said in a statement representatives from the Inspectorate and Immigration had attended a number of meetings with team leaders representing the workers. Another was scheduled for Wednesday.

"INZ takes the workers' allegations very seriously and is working through the issues to ensure the workers are getting the pay and conditions they signed up to at the start of their contracts," the spokesman said.

"Officials will separately discuss the workers' concerns with the company and ensure that an agreement is reached that is acceptable to all the parties involved," he said.

Labour Inspectorate regional manager Kevin Finnegan said, also in a statement, the inspectorate found it was a contractual issue, not one that breached minimum employment standards.

Repeated requests for an interview with Finnegan to discuss the fear workers raised about making complaints, as well as the way their concerns were being dealt with, were declined.

The ni-Vanuatu spokesman said he was disappointed by the process, alleging that after their complaint was made known to the Inspectorate, it was their employers who called them to a meeting about it.

Workers were called to a meeting at the office where they found representatives from the Inspectorate and Immigration, but because of the presence of their employers none of the workers felt comfortable speaking until they left the room.

When they left, the spokesman said they only had 15 minutes to raise their complaints.

This was not long enough, and the inspectorate should have approached the workers first before meeting with them and their employers, he said.

A spokeswoman for Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse said, while he was concerned by the allegations, he could not comment while the matter was ongoing.

 - The Marlborough Express

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