Scheme 'risk to workers'

Thousands of migrant workers are at risk of exploitation following changes to the seasonal employer scheme, Labour warns.

This week's changes to the Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme allow employers to make deductions for such things as airfares and accommodation from wages, even if take-home pay falls below the minimum $12.50 an hour.

Until now, employers have been unable to recoup costs until workers earn more than the minimum wage.

The change could affect up to 5000 Pacific Islanders who travel to New Zealand each year to work in horticulture and viticulture.

About 1700 workers are expected in Marlborough during the current pruning season.

Labour's associate labour spokesman Darien Fenton described the change as exploitation.

"At a time of increasing unemployment the last thing we need is to allow employers to import workers as cheap labour," she said.

The Council of Trade Unions also feared "more blatant exploitation"."There have been significant examples of unauthorised and unfair deductions from RSE workers' pay even under existing regulations," CTU vice-president Richard Wagstaff said.

"Relaxing the minimum wage will only result in more blatant exploitation of already vulnerable workers as unscrupulous employers shift costs onto them."

Immigration Minister Jonathan Coleman announced the changes on Wednesday.

He said the criticism was incorrect.

"RSE workers need to make payments for accommodation and advances they receive," Coleman said.

"This needs to be done by agreed and upfront deductions from their wages.

"In the past, automatic payments were often set up instead these payments were not transparent."

- By ALEX VAN WEL, The Press