Undercover sting would have rogue labour operators running scared - expert

Viticultural consultant Murray Paterson wants the Labour Inspectorate to flush out rogue contractors in Marlborough.
DEREK FLYNN/FAIRFAX NZ

Viticultural consultant Murray Paterson wants the Labour Inspectorate to flush out rogue contractors in Marlborough.

With rogue operators threatening the reputation of New Zealand's wine industry, the only way of catching out some labour contractors would be by conducting sting operations, a consultant says.

There have been repeated calls for the Labour Inspectorate to establish an office in Blenheim to provide a presence on the ground and deter employment breaches. 

Viticultural consultant Murray Paterson said it was too easy for contractors to manipulate timesheets and payment records, which he said labour inspectors relied on during their investigations.

In the last four years labour inspectors have conducted twice as many investigations in Marlborough than Nelson and ...
SHAUN YEO/FAIRFAX NZ

In the last four years labour inspectors have conducted twice as many investigations in Marlborough than Nelson and Tasman combined.

"It's easy enough to find out who the rogues are, we know it's happening but the thing that's hard to get is the evidence," he said.

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"They wouldn't have to do it continually, all they have to do is target the bad contractors with a sting operation and everyone would be running scared for a good few years."

Labour Inspectorate regional manager Kevin Finnegan said he was confident inspectors could uncover employment records that had been manipulated.

A range of methods were used during investigations, including using sources in other government agencies and within the industry, as well as interviews with employers and employees, he said.

"The best way to stop employment breaches happening in the Marlborough wine industry is through the industry taking greater ownership of the issue.

"This includes vineyard owners checking their contractors are meeting their employment obligations and holding them accountable."

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Labour inspectors have conducted twice as many investigations in Marlborough in the past four years than in Nelson and Tasman combined.

Two weeks ago, labour inspectors were involved in a joint government investigation that unearthed multiple breaches by labour contractors servicing the growing wine industry.

Industry leaders, including the chief executive of New Zealand Winegrowers Philip Gregan, have called for inspectors to be based in the region, as a deterrent measure for rogue operators threatening the reputation of the industry.

However, Labour Inspectorate general manager George Mason said the high number of investigations conducted in Marlborough showed having inspectors based in Nelson did not effect their ability to police breaches.

Figures released by the Inspectorate showed between July 2012 and August 2016 inspectors received 176 complaints about employment breaches in Marlborough and conducted 102 investigations.

In the same period, Nelson and Tasman had 133 complaints combined, which resulted in inspectors carrying out 51 investigations.

Kaikoura Labour candidate Janette Walker said the figures clearly showed there was a need for the Inspectorate to open an office in Blenheim.

"Having them based in Nelson has allowed the industry, in my opinion, to develop some bad habits," she said.

"They need a minimum of two inspectors here, because there are breaches all over the place and the industry and the people involved, the growers and contractors, need to understand that ripping people off is not on."

Complaints and investigations related to the wine industry made up around half of the total figures, with 87 complaints and 46 investigations over the four year period.

The growth of the industry, which is predicted to need another 2000 workers over the next four years, was another factor leading to calls for a labour inspector based in the region.

Kaikoura MP Stuart Smith, the former chairman of New Zealand Winegrowers, said the location of inspectors was less important than the resources they were given.

However, he pointed out that the travel time between Nelson and Blenheim was "dead time" either way.

"I don't know whether having them based here would make any difference, the question is 'are they adequately resourced to do the job?'"

However, for others in the industry, the methods of labour inspectors rather than where they were based was a more important question.

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse said during a visit to Blenheim on Tuesday it was up to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to decide where the Inspectorate was based.

Mason did not respond to a question about whether there had been discussions about basing inspectors in Marlborough, or what would be required for this to happen.

"A major benefit of basing the Inspectorate out of Nelson is we are able to work more effectively with other government agencies," he said.

"This collaboration is important when regulating employment standards and migrant exploitation, with a number of the issues cross-cutting."

As well as the three inspectors in Nelson, Mason said Marlborough was also serviced by other inspectors during periods of seasonal demand.

"Inspectors will travel around and process cases from other areas relevant to the sector they focus on, as Inspectorate resources are shifted around the country to where they're most needed," he said.

 - The Marlborough Express

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