Advocates claim clearer guidelines needed for Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme worker deductions
Public concern over how much overseas vineyard workers are being charged for accommodation and petrol could be mitigated by clearer guidelines for contractors, an advocate says.
Concerned Marlborough residents have passed on pay slips to Stuff showing deductions they feel are at odds with the purpose of the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme.
The scheme was set up 10 years ago to provide economic assistance to Pacific Island economies while filling the need for seasonal labour in New Zealand in fields like viticulture.
A ni-Vanuatu worker who approached Stuff last week claimed after deductions were taken from his pay he was left with as little as $200 one week - far less than he expected to earn.
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However, contractors and Immigration New Zealand, which oversees the scheme, are adamant there are already systems in place to make sure deductions are reasonable, not exploitative.
Central Amalgamated Workers' Union organiser Steve McManus said he wanted to see more uniform deductions across the wine industry, as well as lower contributions in general.
"There should be some sort of industry standard, because the prices seem to vary from one contractor to another - it could be $140, or it could be $180 a week for accommodation," he said.
"It's a double whammy, they're getting profit off their labour and from accommodation, which can be pretty bloody high considering they have to share a room."
Pay slips provided to Stuff show over the course of two weeks a worker with a large RSE-accredited company was deducted $280 for accommodation, $72 for petrol, and $250 for loan repayments.
RSE workers pay half their return airfare to New Zealand, while their employer pays the rest. On other pay slips, the same man also had one-off deductions of $100 for house management and $200 for clothes and boots.
Labour Kaikoura candidate Janette Walker said Labour was reviewing its immigration policies prior to the election, part of which would include looking at the RSE scheme to see how it could be improved.
"What's been highlighted here in Marlborough, and given some of the comments I've received on social media, it seems to be across the board, there's huge variability," she said.
"Some companies are very clear and reasonable with their deductions but others aren't - it's very ad hoc. The deductions have to be agreed on by the workers, and they have to be able to negotiate."
To be eligible for an Agreement to Recruit, RSE-approved contractors had to provide INZ with a list of the deductions they intended to make. These were considered by the department.
Workers were shown the deductions along with their employment contracts back home. However, Walker claimed they were a vulnerable group and there was a need for union representation to negotiate.
"We're talking about a vulnerable group of workers who need the work, so they don't feel empowered enough to say, 'hey, I don't want to pay that'," she said.
However, New Zealand Master Contractors chairwoman Linley King, an RSE contractor herself, said in her experience RSE employers tried to keep deductions to a minimum.
"I think the majority of RSE employers do their very best to keep deductions to a minimum so these people can take as much home as possible," King said.
"The deductions are sent along with their employment agreements, so the workers actually have a look at those before they're recruited - they see that prior to coming over here."
While INZ considered proposed deductions, King said they did not set guidelines because prices were market driven; accommodation costs, for example, could vary significantly from region to region.
Wine Marlborough general manager Marcus Pickens said he would like to see more visibility and transparency around deductions. This should come from the body responsible for approving them, he said.
Pickens agreed that clear guidelines or data showing deductions would give the public greater confidence that contractors were setting reasonable rates for things such as accommodation and petrol costs.
In 2009, changes were made to the RSE scheme allowing employers to make deductions even if take-home pay fell below the minimum wage, then $12.50 an hour.
Immigration Minister at the time Jonathan Coleman defended the move, saying workers needed to pay for accommodation and any advances such as flights, however the change was criticised by political opponents.
Labour's associate labour spokesman in 2009, Darien Fenton, described the change as exploitative, saying "at a time of increasing unemployment the last thing we need is to allow employers to import workers as cheap labour".
INZ Pacifica labour and skills manager George Rarere said deductions must be for actual, reasonable and verifiable costs so maximum amounts were not specified.
"There have been occasions when transport costs have been questioned and issues have been worked through to ensure deductions are reasonable and verifiable," he said.
Rarere said the 2009 change was made so New Zealand workers, who had to pay transport costs even if they were on the minimum wage, were not penalised compared to RSE workers.
- The Marlborough Express