Advocates claim unions key for driving 'fly-by-nighters' from Marlborough wine industry

Central Amalgamated Union Workers organiser Steve McManus has been approached by RSE workers interested in joining the union.
SCOTT HAMMOND/FAIRFAX NZ

Central Amalgamated Union Workers organiser Steve McManus has been approached by RSE workers interested in joining the union.

Overseas workers on the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme have approached a union over their concerns about pay rates working in vineyards around Marlborough.

Labour Kaikoura candidate Janette Walker set up the meeting, between the workers and a representative of the Central Amalgamated Workers Union, last week.

Walker, an outspoken critic of employment practices in the wine industry, said she was aware of a number of cases where RSE workers had been underpaid.

"These companies have had long enough to get their act sorted, the guys that come here work so hard and they deserve a fair day's pay for a fair day's work, not to be exploited," she said.

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An investigation into nine RSE vineyard contractors last year found all were compliant with labour laws. Wine industry leaders have also praised the scheme.

Harsher penalties were announced by the Government last month, where employers, including RSE contractors, would lose their ability to recruit migrant workers for up to two years if they breached employment law.

Walker said RSE workers were growing more aware of employment law and by becoming unionised they would be in a better position to challenge breaches.

"It would create better employment practices within the industry, create a bit of uniformity with regards to rate of pay and get rid of the fly-by-nighters," Walker said.

Central Amalgamated Workers Union organiser Steve McManus said he was angered by the pay slips some of the RSE workers showed him last week.

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One man had been paid only $75 for one of the days he worked, and the two 15-minute paid breaks were absent from his pay slip, he said.

Walker said the pay slip, from a RSE contractor, showed a rate of pay considerably less than that agreed upon in the employment contract.

McManus said one of the workers came to Marlborough hoping to make $8000, however he would only be able to save about $3000 because of how little he was getting paid.

"I want to help these people out, because they should be getting the same rights us Kiwis have, they should be getting exactly the same," he said.

"The wine industry is supposed to be the pride of Marlborough, but some of the employment practices are bloody disgraceful."

McManus acknowledged the majority of RSE employers, who were heavily audited by government agencies to attain accreditation, were doing the right thing.

However, in his 13 years in the role, he had seen a number of employment breaches, many of which he claimed went unreported to the Labour Inspectorate.

"The workers are told, 'keep away from the unions', 'keep away from the Department of Labour', otherwise you won't be back next year," he said.

The RSE scheme was set up 10 years ago as a way of providing economic assistance to Pacific Island nations while filling a need for seasonal workers in New Zealand.

Walker said it was considered a privilege to get onto the scheme, and workers were wary of reporting anything untoward as they were fearful they would not be able to return the following season.

McManus said a small number of RSE workers joined the union a few years ago, and while the workers last week were interested they were yet to sign up as members.

RSE workers that registered would have access to legal assistance through the union, as well as help with pay slips, and support talking to employers about what they were earning, McManus said.

Wine Marlborough general manager Marcus Pickens said it was up to each worker whether they joined a union. It was important there was good communication between employers and their employees, he said.

Employers should explain what pay slips look like, how much workers would be paid for certain jobs, and what deductions were being taken for things such as accommodation and transport, he said.

Wine Marlborough, through its White Paper initiative, was establishing best practice employment guidelines, among other things, for growers and wine companies, Pickens said.

Labour Inspectorate regional manager Kevin Finnegan said the inspectorate looked at RSE employment contracts before workers arrived in the country to make sure they complied with employment law.

"Where there are contractual issues, RSE workers are advised to use their team leader representative to raise concerns with their employer, and try to resolve them through their employer in the first instance," he said.

"If a RSE employer is breaching minimum employment standards, such as not paying at least the minimum wage or providing holiday pay, the Labour Inspectorate is the appropriate agency for employees to raise their concerns."

RSE workers could make complaints through an interpreter. Complaints could also be made anonymously.

 - The Marlborough Express

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