Wine industry welcomes new policy blocking rogue employers access to migrant workers

The wine industry has welcomed a new policy barring employers from recruiting migrant workers if they breach employment ...
SCOTT HAMMOND/FAIRFAX NZ

The wine industry has welcomed a new policy barring employers from recruiting migrant workers if they breach employment standards.

Harsher penalties for employers that breach minimum standards have been welcomed by the wine industry after they were announced last week.

As of April 1, employers that flout immigration and employment law will undergo a stand-down period where they will no longer be able to hire migrant workers.

Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse, who announced the policy last Thursday, said access to the international labour market was a privilege, not a right.

"If employers abuse that privilege by exploiting migrants or failing to comply with employment law, there will be consequences," he said.

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The new measures applied to employers intending to recruit labour market-tested migrant workers, as well as Recognised Seasonal Employer-accredited employers.

Immigration New Zealand operational policy manager Nick Aldous said it did cover migrants workers on working holiday or student visas.

The stand-down period would apply if employers incurred employment standard-related penalties, such as an infringement notice from the Labour Inspectorate.

It could also include penalties issued by the Employment Relations Authority (ERA), through to those issued as a result of private action in the Employment Court.

Depending on the severity of the breach, employers could lose their ability to recruit migrant workers from anywhere from six months to two years.

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New Zealand Winegrowers chief executive Phillip Gregan said the industry supported the policy.

"We've always said that the rules are the rules, if people are breaching employment law then there should be consequences," he said.

However, others in the industry questioned how effective the policy would be in the viticulture sector, given most breachs were committed by independent contractors.

Without RSE status, independent contractors mainly relied on a combination of New Zealand workers and backpackers on working holiday visas, so they were not covered in the policy.

An investigation headed by the Labour Inspectorate last year involved visits to nine RSE contractors. All nine were found to be compliant with employment standards.

However, of the 10 independent contractors audited as part of the sting, three were being taken to the ERA, and another two were issued improvement notices.

Under the new policy, contractors could not attain RSE accreditation if they were on the stand-down list, Aldous said.

"For those employers who already have RSE status, any information about non-compliance will feed into the existing process for rescinding RSE status," he said.

Alapa Viticultural Services owner Alan Wilkinson said RSE contractors already risked losing their accreditation or ability to recruit if they breached employment standards under the scheme.

He welcomed the introduction of harsher penalties, describing the policy as a no-brainer, but said it would only be a half-measure if it did not cover employers recruiting workers on holiday visas.

If contractors breached employment standards and had their ability to hire migrant workers revoked, it would have a crippling effect on their business, he said.

However, Wilkinson warned contractors could simply dissolve their companies and start again under a new name - something he had seen in the past.

Wine Marlborough general manager Marcus Pickens said the policy would help precipitate a culture change in industries across New Zealand, not just the viticultural sector.

The industry body had been encouraging more wine companies and growers to ask questions about who they were employing, and if they were legitimate, he said.

Pickens said the new measure would be an effective deterrent in an industry that often struggled to attract enough New Zealand workers to work in the vineyards.

"The industry is constantly saying there isn't enough Kiwis available to do the work - that's what contractors and employers have been telling us," he said.

"There's quite a serious risk that if you lose your ability to recruit workers from overseas then you might lose your business."

RECENT BREACHES

Labour Inspectorate general manager George Mason said the new policy reinforced how seriously the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment took employer obligations.

"The exploitation of workers - such as paying less than the minium wage or making people work excessive hours - is totally unacceptable and breaches New Zealand law," he said.

Between September 1 last year and January 31, the Inspectorate received three complaints in Marlborough.

Two were investigated, and enforcement action was being prepared against the employers, one of which was not paying correct holiday pay, and the other which was not paying minimum wage.

"Two other employers were issued with improvement notices in this period as a result of proactive investigations," Mason said.

 - The Marlborough Express

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