Investigation into unpaid vineyard workers

Five Marlborough vineyard contractors are being investigated for time keeping records and employment contracts.

Five Marlborough vineyard contractors are being investigated for time keeping records and employment contracts.

A Marlborough vineyard contracting business is under investigation by the Labour Inspectorate after allegations workers were under paid for three months.

A former employee, who prompted the investigation when he made a formal complaint through Wine Marlborough, claims he is owed up to $1000 for unpaid hours over four weeks.

He said up to nine others had not been paid the full amount for their hours worked.

The contractor, who cannot be named, disputed the allegations.

He was one of six vineyard contractors in Marlborough under investigation by the Labour Inspectorate over employment contracts and timesheets.

He said money owed to him from vineyard owners was slow coming through to his bank account.

That meant he did not always have the funds available each week to fully pay his staff, he said.

Instead he had advanced cash to desperate staff to see them through until he had been fully invoiced, he said.

He also offered staff, who could not pay rent, a place to stay at his house if necessary.

However, he disputed the amount owed to the complainant.

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He said the former employee owed him money after receiving advance payments.

The complainant said he arrived from Hamilton with a friend in late June to work in the vineyards after picking asparagus and squash in the North Island.

He was given the name of a vineyard contractor by a friend who assured them accommodation would be provided with the job, he said.

"We wanted to come down here and learn new skills and try to get a step up in the industry," the 24-year-old said.

"Instead it has become a complete nightmare."

The pair left Blenheim on Friday to return to the North Island for work.

They had no money and relied on food handouts in the last week from John's Kitchen, a drop-in centre in Blenheim, he said.

On one night, hungry and desperate, he begged for food outside a Countdown supermarket.

"I had nowhere to go so I slept in the bushes near the supermarket." 

He and his friend worked for four different vineyard contractors over a three month period, he said.

They claimed Kula Contracting paid them for 15 hours work over a three week period, half the number of hours they worked.

They were unable to provide timesheets for the amount of hours they claimed to have worked against timesheets kept by contractors. 

Koi Kula, of Kula Contracting, said he gave the men every chance to learn the skills.

"Unfortunately they were not making minimum wages and I was topping their pay up.

"I was willing to help them out, but in the end it was costing me money, and I have to think of my own business."

Kula said he had work records to back up his statement.

Kula Contracting was not under investigation. 

Wine Marlborough general manager Marcus Pickens said the allegations highlighted the need for seasonal vineyard workers to sign formal employment contracts, and to keep accurate work records which could be matched with employer records.

"They need to keep their own records of when, where and how many hours they work so they can match these to the employers if there is any dispute," he said.

Wine Marlborough was keen to stamp out rogue employers who took advantage of seasonal workers, he said.

"We are not in a position to investigate the complaint ourselves but we will support anyone who claims they are being underpaid by contractors, and refer it to the Labour Inspectorate," he said.

Information on employees' rights and working conditions, including contracts, was available to all seasonal workers from Work and Income, he said.

Labour Inspectorate regional manager Kevin Finnegan said an investigation was launched following the complainant's allegations.

"From our point of view it is disappointing the wine industry is still directly, or indirectly, employing these sort of contractors and that they are allowed to operate," he said.

A separate inter-departmental operation between the Labour Inspectorate and Immigration New Zealand last month looked at the employment contracts and timesheets of 22 contractors in Marlborough, Finnegan said.

Five vineyard contractors were under investigation as a result of that operation, he said.

The latest complaint would be added to the investigation.

 - The Marlborough Express


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