Marlborough vineyard contractors encouraged to invest in purpose-built accommodation for workers

St Andrews Property Group is developing the former Country Life Motel, south of Blenheim, to house more than 400 ...
RICKY WILSON/FAIRFAX NZ

St Andrews Property Group is developing the former Country Life Motel, south of Blenheim, to house more than 400 vineyard workers.

The Government is working with vineyard contractors in Marlborough to get their workers out of rentals and into purpose-built accommodation.

Immigration New Zealand, which oversees the Recognised Seasonal Employment scheme, has been tight-lipped about the discussions, but contractors have confirmed talks are underway.

This comes after a string of reports about rising house prices and rents in Blenheim, as well as hefty Government motel bills of nearly $100,000 a month housing homeless families.

A number of RSE contractors have already made the move to purpose-built facilities, which the wine industry has mooted as a solution to accommodate growing numbers of workers.

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Seasonal Solutions chief executive Helen Axby said the co-operative was in discussions with the RSE unit at the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

A large part of the consultation process, which Axby said included RSE employers from around the country, focused on moving from residential to purpose-built worker accommodation.

"We use a fairly wide range of different accommodation providers across the region and a proportion of those are residential houses in central Blenheim," she said.

"We're very aware of the need for purpose-built accommodation, and we're working with some of our grower shareholders to look at options for accommodation moving forward."

Axby said future accommodation options could include new builds, or doing what other contractors had done by acquiring large commercial properties to house workers.

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"We're as aware as anyone else of the issues that are involved here. But it's something that cannot change overnight because it's simply not possible to get council approval, and/or build in a short space of time."

Immigration NZ Pasifica labour and skills manager George Rarere would not directly answer questions about whether Immigration was encouraging or telling contractors to move out of residential housing.

Instead, he said it was normal practice for Immigration to consult with RSE employers about their future labour requirements, and the agency encouraged contractors to consider a range of accommodation options.

He also said Immigration consulted with the Ministry of Social Development, which had recently invested in emergency housing in Blenheim, whenever contractors applied to recruit workers on the RSE scheme.

Figures provided by the Labour Inspectorate last August showed RSE contractors were using 191 properties in Blenheim and Seddon to house workers. They could not provide new figures.

Regional manager Kevin Finnegan said they were auditing the information so they could provide more informative breakdowns of the number, and type of properties being used to house workers.

Wine Marlborough general manager Marcus Pickens said while there was no specific policy in place, he said the Government had shown a preference for contractors to be using purpose-built facilities.

"It's pretty sensible, we've got to be part of the community, and we certainly don't want any backlash where people say 'the wine industry is forcing people out of accommodation'," he said.

Pickens said there were a number of plans for new developments, however he said it would take time to go through the consenting process and secure builders.

Vinepower director Jason Kennard said the company wanted to be part of the solution.

Before the pruning season started next year all the company's RSE workers would be accommodated at the former Country Life Motel site, south of Blenheim.

Kennard was one of the directors of the St Andrews Property Group, which bought the motel to transform it into vineyard worker accommodation for more than 400 people.

The vineyard contracting company had made a conscious decision to sell its residential properties, and was currently housing workers in motel and backpacker-style accommodation.

Kennard said when the St Andrews development was ready, the commercial-style accommodation Vinepower owned in town would become free for other contractors to use.

"In theory, it should free up 400 beds in town, because once we move out we'll leave beds behind us that should help other contractors get out of residential houses," he said.

"RSE contractors are aware of the need not to fill up residential accommodation, but it's finding the room elsewhere that's the problem - if it's not there you have to build it."

"Within three to five years I'd hope that 80 per cent of RSE staff are accommodated in non-residential accommodation - I think that's realistic."

 - The Marlborough Express

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