Marlborough labour contractor calls for harsher penalties for 'dodgy contractors' breaching employment regulations

Hortus owner Aaron Jay at Duncannon, accommodation bought by the company earlier this year to house their seasonal workers.
DEREK FLYNN/FAIRFAX NZ

Hortus owner Aaron Jay at Duncannon, accommodation bought by the company earlier this year to house their seasonal workers.

Punishing wine companies and grape growers using dodgy labour contractors in Marlborough would help stamp out employment breaches, a labour provider says.

A recent investigation by government departments uncovered numerous breaches in the contracting industry, with nine out of 10 operators randomly assessed found to be non-compliant.

The investigation was described as a wake-up call for the Marlborough wine industry, prompting industry experts to implore wine companies and growers to ask more questions of their contractors.

Aaron Jay, the owner of Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme accredited contracting company Hortus, said the companies benefiting from cheap labour should not be exempt from responsibility, or punishment.

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"They need to be fined as well, not just the dodgy contractors, you start fining the growers that are using them and they'll soon start bucking up their ideas," he said.

"There are people in our industry continuing to use them, they've got to take some responsibility because they're employing contractors who are ripping people off and giving us all a bad name."

As part of the investigation, labour inspectors also assessed the employment practices of nine RSE accredited contractors, finding them all compliant.

However, because of the ignorance surrounding the RSE scheme, Jay, the RSE representative for Marlborough, said all contractors were being "tarred by the same brush." 

"A lot of people don't know what RSE means, but they do care about people being ripped off, and they're reading articles saying contractors are bad and they're not paying minimum wage, so they think all contractors are bad," he said.

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"We work in the same industry, but there's a huge degree of difference between us and them."

A labour survey, commissioned by industry body Wine Marlborough, found the 17 RSE contractors operating in Marlborough serviced around 75 per cent of the total vineyard area.

The RSE scheme, which started in 2006, allowed accredited employers to recruit workers, mainly from Pacific Island nations, to work in the horticultural and viticultural industries.

The process companies went through to secure their accreditation included audits from Immigration New Zealand, the Ministry of Social Development, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and Inland Revenue.

Contractors also had to provide financial records and human resource policies and practices, including documents showing they paid workers market rates and had proper pastoral care models in place.

Because of this oversight, which continued once companies were approved and had to apply for an agreement to recruit, Jay said wine companies and growers could have peace of mind employing RSE contractors.

"It doesn't take long to find out if an RSE contractor is ripping someone off," he said.

However, he was worried their reputation was being called into question by the actions of some "dodgy contractors," saying fines should be increased and possible jail time introduced as a deterrent. 

Employers who breached employment law were subject to enforcement action which could include penalties of up to $50,000 for individuals and up to $100,000, or three times the financial gain, for companies.

The owner of Vine Strength, one of the companies named by the labour inspectorate for failing to pay minimum wage and holiday pay, refuted the claims.

Ajay Gaur said he provided inspectors with all the necessary time sheets and payment records when they visited him in July, but said they had not contacted him about the alleged breaches before going public.

"The labour inspectorate is trying to push us out of the industry and just keep in the RSE contractors," he said.

"I'm just a small business man doing a small volume of work, so I can survive with my family."

Gaur denied not paying his workers minimum wage, saying any worker that failed to meet the threshold through contract rates had their pay topped up.

Last year, the Employment Relations Authority ordered Vine Strength and another contracting company owned by Gaur, SP 2007, to pay $6,879 and $15,837 respectively in unpaid wages to an employee.

New Zealand Winegrowers chief executive Philip Gregan said employment breaches were unacceptable, and that having a labour inspector based in Blenheim would help the situation.

"As an industry we need to have a reputation for our vineyard practices, for producing great wine and for looking after people, the land, air and water, all of that affects our reputation," he said.

Having a labour inspector based in Marlborough, the nearest office was in Nelson, would not be an issue for compliant contractors but it would force rogue operators to reconsider their employment practices, he said.

 - The Marlborough Express

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