Self-auditing worker accommodation could lead to 'dodgy contractors' in Marlborough

Alapa Viticultural Services owner Alan Wilkinson, middle, with a group of Samoan RSE workers says the proposed changes ...
OLIVER LEWIS/FAIRFAX NZ

Alapa Viticultural Services owner Alan Wilkinson, middle, with a group of Samoan RSE workers says the proposed changes to accommodation audits will make it easier for rogue contractors to take advantage of workers.

Marlborough labour contractors are worried proposed changes to the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme will open the door to rogue operators. 

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment revealed last November it was considering self-audits for RSE worker accommodation.

Labour inspectors carry out audits to make sure approved RSE employers are providing adequate accommodation for their workers.

Hortus Ltd owner Aaron Jay is the Marlborough RSE representative and attended the Pastoral Care and Compliance meeting last November, where the changes were announced.

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Jay disagreed with the idea, saying it could lead to "dodgy contractors" setting up and exploiting workers by housing them in overcrowded accommodation. 

Marlborough contractors had worked hard to establish their reputation, however this was at risk of being undermined by the changes to the auditing process, he said.

Alapa Vineyard Services owner Alan Wilkinson said high demand for accommodation in Marlborough could increase the pressure on some contractors to take advantage of the self-auditing process.

However, this would tarnish the reputation of both contractors and the wider Marlborough wine industry, he said.

"That looks bad for all of us, because we're tarred by the same brush."

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At present, there was enough RSE workers to meet the labour demands of the wine industry, however Wilkinson said this would not be the case in the future.

In three or four years, there would need to be another 1000 workers, he said.

This would require the government to increase the cap of the RSE scheme, which was set at 9500 workers nationwide.

Any increase in the number of RSE workers would require more accommodation and Wilkinson said this should be audited to ensure there was no exploitation.

Regional Labour Inspectorate manager Kevin Finnegan said no decision had been made on the proposal, which would be consulted on with key stakeholders.

However, he said it could include RSE employers self-auditing accommodation using photographic evidence.

New properties would still be subject to inspections and there could still be periodic checks on employers who were self-auditing, he said.

"Given the level of maturity of the RSE Scheme it is appropriate to explore ways of supporting employers to consider how they can play a more central role in the management of their responsibilities."

Marlborough District Council economic development and strategic planning manager Neil Henry said the council sent a letter to the ministry following the meeting.

The letter, signed by mayor Alistair Sowman, expressed concerns about the change as the auditing process had made a positive difference to the state of worker accommodation, he said.

Wine Marlborough general manager Marcus Pickens said the reputation of the RSE scheme had been built up over a long period of time.

Anything that undermined that was bad for the industry, he said.

"It's important to have that oversight, to have another pair of eyes, because we want to make sure workers are looked after."

A labour survey conducted by Wine Marlborough, which is expected to be released later this month, found most respondents thought the RSE cap should be increased to meet future demand.

The scheme was fundamental to the wine industry and making sure there was no exploitation taking place was important, Pickens said.

He called the change "unacceptable", saying it would introduce "wriggle room" that could cause standards to slip.

"If it's not broken, don't fix it," he said.

 - The Marlborough Express

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