Employment breaches 'wake-up call' for Marlborough wine industry

Thousands of workers are needed to service the growing Marlborough wine industry each year.

Thousands of workers are needed to service the growing Marlborough wine industry each year.

Widespread employment breaches have been unearthed by an investigation into labour contractors servicing the Marlborough wine industry.

Several labour contractors, who supply wine companies with workers, were found to have breached employment standards by failing to pay their workers minimum wage, holiday pay, or keep proper employment records.

The joint investigation, carried out by the Labour Inspectorate, Immigration New Zealand and Inland Revenue, involved random visits to 10 independent labour contractors around the region.

Wine Marlborough manager Marcus Pickens.

Wine Marlborough manager Marcus Pickens.

Only one was found to be compliant with employment regulations.

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Double Seven Services and Vine Strength were both found in breach of failing to pay workers minimum wage, while another seven contractors failed to provide proper records.

Labour Inspectorate regional manager Kevin Finnegan said the results of the investigation showed the wine industry needed to take greater ownership over employment practices.

"With only one contractor found to be compliant, it shows the industry needs to start taking action to ensure contractors they're using are meeting employment standards," he said.

"It's simply unacceptable to fail to pay minimum wage, holiday pay, or keep up-to-date records for employees."

The reputation of the wine industry was being put at risk by its association with contractors who failed to treat their employees properly, Finnegan said.

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"By engaging with contractors who choose to ignore employment standards, the New Zealand wine industry is exposing themselves to reputational damage."

"We want the industry to take some ownership of the issue and show they are taking it seriously."

Finnegan said seven of the contractors had been asked to supply time, wage and holiday records to show they were compliant, however none had been able to produce the necessary documents.

The investigation, which took place over a week in July, was still ongoing, so there had been no decision made about punitive measures against the companies.

Nine Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme contractors were also inspected as part of the investigation, all of which were found compliant. 

Marcus Pickens, the general manager of Wine Marlborough, an industry body charged with marketing and protecting the reputation of wine from the region, said the industry needed to view the investigation as a wake-up call.

"It's a very serious issue and it's something the industry should take as a very pointed call for action," he said.

"These issues need to be front and centre for all the vineyard owners and wine companies, and the contractors as well, they're a vital part of the industry."

The high expectations that New Zealanders and international consumers placed on Marlborough included the proper treatment of workers, and anything that undermined that could be damaging, Pickens said.

Every wine company and vineyard owner that hired labour contractors should be asking questions about how their workers were being treated, he said.

"We've been saying the same thing for a long time, it's about asking the people you engage [with] at every level.

"If you're a contractor, ask your subcontractor, if you're a grape grower then you should be asking your contractor, you should be asking questions to satisfy yourself that things are compliant."

The actions of the contractors found to be in breach were made possible, in part, because the companies or individuals that employed them were not asking questions, Pickens said.

"Someone is employing these people, some people in our sector are giving them the right to operate."

The results of the investigation, alongside the predicted growth of the Marlborough wine industry - almost 2000 more workers are needed over the next four years - raised questions about the need for a labour inspector based in the region.

Pickens said it was definitely building a case, and the issues would be looked into by a working group of industry members which was formed following a recent labour summit.

Kaikoura Labour candidate Janette Walker, an outspoken critic of the labour practices of the wine industry, said she was not surprised by the results of the investigation.

Walker said she often came across workers with employment disputes with labour contractors in her role as co-ordinator of a charitable trust.

"It happens almost every week," she said.

Without a labour inspector in the region, the nearest inspectors were based in Nelson, Walker said it was easier for contractors to get away with employment breaches.

"They can get away with this stuff because there's not enough feet on the ground in terms of labour inspectors," she said.

Walker, who had reported several labour contractors to inspectors, said wine companies should be as concerned with sustainable labour practices as they were with "sustainable ticks on their gate posts".

"The grape growers can police it themselves, it's all very well for them to shrug their shoulders and say, 'we've got a contractor'," she said.

"But they should be asking what they're doing, because those people are working in their paddocks."

Employers who breached employment law were subject to enforcement action which could include penalties of up to $50,000 for individuals and up to $100,000, or three times the financial gain, for companies.

To report employment breaches contact the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment on 0800 209 020.

 - The Marlborough Express

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