Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse warns Marlborough vineyard contractors they could lose overseas workers

Touring seasonal worker accommodation are, from left, Hortus operations manager Rob Slatter, Hortus owner Aaron Jay, ...
DEREK FLYNN/FAIRFAX NZ

Touring seasonal worker accommodation are, from left, Hortus operations manager Rob Slatter, Hortus owner Aaron Jay, Kaikoura MP Stuart Smith and Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse.

Marlborough labour contractors found breaching employment regulations could have their ability to recruit overseas workers taken away, the Immigration Minister has warned.

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse made the comments while visiting members of the wine industry in Blenheim on Tuesday, saying he was disappointed with recent breaches unearthed by a joint government investigation.

The results of the ongoing investigation, which were revealed two weeks ago, showed nine of the 10 labour contractors inspected were found to be in breach of employment requirements.

However, all nine of the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme employers audited were found to be compliant, something Woodhouse said should be the case across the board.

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One of the sanctions for contractors found in breach could be the removal of their ability to recruit workers overseas using labour market-tested work visas. This would not include workers employed through the RSE scheme.

"I want these employers to comply voluntarily, but if they don't there are sanctions, one of which is access to the international labour market," Woodhouse said.

"That is a privilege, not a right, and if you abuse that privilege you may lose it."

There were around 500 workers in Marlborough on labour market-tested working visas, which enabled employers to recruit from overseas if they could prove there were no New Zealanders to fill the positions.

Woodhouse did not elaborate on how contractors in breach would have their ability to employ from overseas revoked, but said it could be done on a case-by-case basis.

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Under his tenure as the Immigration Minister he said he had encouraged greater co-operation between Immigration New Zealand and the Labour Inspectorate, which fell under the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

"I don't want one part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to be going, 'this employer is not meeting minimum standards' and the other part rewarding them with access to the international labour market," he said.

"I think that's a pretty fair warning I've given the industry, and we'll be following up on that."

Members of the wine industry, including New Zealand Winegrowers chief executive Philip Gregan, have called for labour inspectors to be based in Blenheim to act as a deterrent for rogue contractors. 

However, Woodhouse said he was confident the Labour Inspectorate was able to clamp down on employment breaches from their base in Nelson.

"They're based in Nelson, but they spend a lot of time over here, my concern isn't necessarily where they're domiciled but where they're targeting risk," he said.

"I'm not sure it follows that because there isn't a labour inspector here that breaches would increase."

As part of his visit to the region, Woodhouse visited Duncannon, seasonal worker accommodation purchased by RSE accredited contractor Hortus earlier this year.

Hortus owner Aaron Jay said he wanted to see an increase in the RSE allocation over the summer period, however he had been told by Immigration New Zealand there would be no increases for the upcoming November to April period.

"That now tells us we've got to get ready for a turnover of anywhere between 100 to 500 backpackers because, simply, we're not going to find the Kiwis," he said.

This would be costly for the company, as backpackers tended to be slower workers that were not able to make minimum wage through piece rates, which meant contractors had to top up their wages.

RSE workers, who Jay described as the backbone of the wine industry, were more reliable and had the potential to earn above minimum wage on piece rates.

Jay said the top 10 per cent of the Hortus workforce all earned more than $24 per hour and their best worker was capable of earning around $1350 a week.

"Some of these guys make significant money, but they work bloody hard," he said.

Under Woodhouse, the total national cap for the RSE scheme had risen from 8000 to 9500 workers a year.

The minister said he would listen to the concerns of the wine industry, but it was important that labour contractors took a New Zealand-first approach, and that the allocation was being used as productively as possible.

 - The Marlborough Express

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