Tolley backs Kaiapoi pallet firm

MICHAEL BERRY
Last updated 13:54 07/03/2013
Hare Solomon
DAVID HALLETT/Fairfax NZ
Hare Solomon

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Corrections Minister Anne Tolley has backed the Kaiapoi business at the centre of a row about the use of prisoners to replace labourers.

Canterbury labourers Hare Solomon, Kerry Lambert and three colleagues say they were laid off by their employer, Kiwi Pallets Kaiapoi, two days after 11 Rolleston Prison inmates were hired under the Release to Work scheme.

In a statement released to The Press, Tolley said any issues between employees and the employer would have to be dealt with by the company.

''This particular employer has been a great partner for Corrections as we strive to reduce reoffending - while prisoners have provided a useful service in plugging gaps caused by the Christchurch rebuild.''

The inmates have fixed-term agreements at market rates, which have to be at least minimum wage, and they are not subsidised by the department.

The Department of Corrections said it could not comment on ''circumstances relating to individual prisoners''.

However, Waimakariri-based Labour list MP Clayton Cosgrove told The Press hiding behind privacy was ''bunkum'' and called for the department and Tolley to ''front up''.

''How do you breach an inmate's privacy simply by saying they are doing Release to Work?''

Cosgrove said five young workers had lost their jobs soon after their employer took on 11 inmates after ''working their guts out'' and they deserved an explanation.

''Everybody has remained silent and their silence is deafening,'' he said.

''People simply want an assurance that employers won't sack law-abiding Kiwis and get in prison labour on the cheap.''

Tolley said the scheme had been running for decades and the department took care to ensure there were ''no adverse effects for local workers''.

''Prisoners are paid market rates - this has nothing to do with cheap labour and everything to do with giving prisoners work experience so they don't reoffend when they are released, and don't create more victims of crime in our communities.''

An unnamed source in the Prison Service said most employers paid what they would give to other employees.

However, he believed some employers may be paying the prisoners less than what they were paying other workers doing the same job.

''It's not right to say they are paid market rates, the majority are on minimum wage.

''It's a good scheme. It lets them [prisoners] put some money in the bank and gives them a job to do, but where I have an issue is where they are replacing people at lower rates.''

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Labour in Christchurch was becoming much more valuable because of the rebuild and the minimum wage was no longer the market rate in the city, he said.

If employers could employ inmates for minimum wages - lower than what usual employees would take in the market - that was an issue, he said.

A Work and Income spokesman said prisoners were not eligible for employment subsidies.

Work and Income has a Job Streams package, which gives wage subsidies to employers to help people at risk of long-term benefit dependency find jobs, but prisoners were not allowed to participate.

Kiwi Pallets could not be reached for comment.

- The Press

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