Labourers lose jobs to prisoners

MICHAEL BERRY
Last updated 05:00 04/03/2013
Hare Solomon
DAVID HALLETT/Fairfax NZ
Hare Solomon

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A Kaiapoi business fired five of its labourers two days after employing 11 convicts - and then made the workers train the inmates who were to replace them, current and former staff say.

Kaiapoi man Hare Solomon said Kiwi Pallets Kaiapoi told him and four workmates they would be laid off in late January "due to lack of work and other factors" just days after the company had hired 11 inmates from Christchurch's Rolleston Prison under the Release to Work scheme.

He was then made to train the convicts during the two-week notice period.

He did not ask his employer why 11 staff were being trained if there was not enough work.

"I was just frustrated and didn't want to lose it, so I just did it [trained them]."

He did not know any reason why the business wanted to get rid of him and his workmates.

"I feel this could happen to other employees at other places of work and would not like to see this happen to anyone, it is not a good feeling to lose a job you like.

"What is the point of giving inmates work if it is being taken away from people already employed? Surely it would be better if jobs are created for the inmates instead?"

Solomon said he was likely to start Department of Labour mediation with his former employer, who would not return several calls from The Press.

One of the few non-inmate labourers left at the business believed he too would be sacked when his fixed-term contract ran out in about a month. He did not want to be named because he feared he could be fired earlier.

He said Solomon had been one of the most productive workers and had been achieving more than his target.

"We were doing really well with the workers we had. We needed a couple more people because we were getting so many orders."

Then the inmates were brought in, people started getting laid off, and the business's productivity plummeted, he said.

The company was now almost a month behind its work, he said.

"I'll back Hare up 100 per cent because what went on was wrong. I kept my job but he deserves to keep his too.

"We were a tight little family, we all got along and always had a laugh. And then they brought them [inmates] in and it went downhill and we lost people we shouldn't have lost."

Solomon said he had worked at Kiwi Pallets for almost a year without being offered a contract before management, in haste, told him he had to sign a four-month fixed-term and back-dated contract on the spot or he would not be kept or paid.

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"It all seems a bit fishy to me . . . I was pushed to sign a contract immediately or else they would not pay me and I would not have been able to go to work on Monday."

Two weeks later he was given his marching orders.

Kerry Lambert, of Christchurch, was also laid off after just under a year's employment at the end of his contract and has been unable to get a new job.

The manager had handed out the redundancy letters to staff an hour before the end of day and Lambert was forced to train the inmates who were replacing him as well.

He thought inmates must have been brought in because they were cheaper, but he had been paid minimum wage, so he could not understand why he and his workmates had been fired.

The Department of Corrections would not confirm whether inmates were working at Kiwi Pallets due to prisoners' privacy, but The Press followed a van full of workers from the company premises to Rolleston Prison.

Due to the privacy issues, the department could not say whether it knew prisoners were replacing employees or comment on its procedures for preventing such events happening.

It did say the Release to Work scheme was successful in helping inmates reintegrate with society and that almost half kept their jobs once they had left prison.

Also, it stressed that Release to Work inmates were paid market rates and not subsidised in any way by the department.

"The Release to Work programme is an important reintegrative programme for offenders and Corrections values the employers who participate in the programme," a department statement said.

CASE COULD BE BROUGHT - SOLICITOR

On the face of Hare Solomon's allegations there appear to be "some issues" with the process his employer took, Duncan Cotterill senior solicitor Adam Gallagher says.

An employer could make employees redundant, but it had to be for a legitimate reason, the employment law specialist said.

"It looks like they possibly made him redundant, although it doesn't look like the positions have gone."

All employers needed to follow the proper process when making staff redundant, including giving reasons and consulting with the affected workers, he said.

"The potential issue's whether it was a fair redundancy because the work remains, it's just they've replaced them with other workers."

The allegation of pressuring workers to sign a contract threw up other issues, because employees had to be allowed the opportunity to seek independent advice before signing, he said.

It was for that reason that contracts should be signed before people started work, he said.

Even if an employee did not have a written contract, they would still be considered to have an employment agreement, even though it would be in breach of employment law, he said.

The nature of the default agreement would be from the conditions that had prevailed during employment.

So a person working regular 40-hour weeks would be considered to be in permanent fulltime employment.

Introducing a fixed-term contract to that situation after almost a year would probably be considered a change in conditions, which would need to be justified to the employee and consultation made, he said.

Solomon would have 90 days to bring a personal grievance against his former employer if he believed he was unfairly treated, Gallagher said.

- The Press

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