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Govt addressing Northland seasonal work needs

Government addressing Northland seasonal work needs

Claims that the government was failing Northland fruit growers by supplying unreliable orchard staff through Work and Income were untrue, Associate Minister for Social Development and Employment Rick Barker said.

"New Zealand immigration laws do not allow foreign visitors to work here without the correct permit. It is unconscionable for one industry sector to assume it can openly flaunt those laws, while blaming the government for its perceived failure to meet Northland's seasonal work needs.

"In March a seasonal work co-ordinator was appointed with co-operation from the Kerikeri Fruitgrowers Society to meet with growers and gauge their workforce needs for the coming season.

"Work and Income will also run pre-employment training for the industry, in conjunction with the growers, to ensure that there is an adequate and prepared labour force ready and available for next season.

"Since January, 300 clients were placed in Northland orchards and packhouses, while Work and Income also gained approval from the Immigration Service for up to 100 temporary work visas to be issued. To date, only one request from a grower has been received for one fruit picker.

"In April, approximately 42 illegal foreign nationals came forward during an immigration sanctuary day in Northland and immigration staff worked with them to identify who could remain in the country.

"Twenty of the 42 individuals who came forward had valid visitor permits and were told they could apply for work permits to allow them to pick fruit. The remainder were told that they would have to leave the country.

"Because people in New Zealand unlawfully are not allowed to work, the Immigration Service has been working closely with fruitgrowers in Northland, Otago and Hawke's Bay in an effort to assist them in finding seasonal workers.

"When Work and Income declares that there is a shortage of labour, the Immigration Service has the discretion to convert visitor permits to work permits to allow foreign nationals to pick fruit."

Mr Barker said two Northland community trusts are also assisting Work and Income by helping transport orchard staff from Kawakawa and Kaikohe to Kerikeri. One of the trusts has assisted 70 people to orchard work.

"Growers must also be aware that labour problems in Northland have been compounded by the way that payment rates are structured, with workers paid by the bin load rather than by the hour.

"The Department of Labour also had significant concerns about the wages paid and workplace conditions of some seasonal employees."

As Associate Minister for Social Development and Employment, operational oversight of Work and Income fell into Mr Barker's portfolio.

He said growers from Kerikeri to Central Otago could be assured that the government was doing more to meet their seasonal workforce demands than ever before.

"In fact, if any beneficiary put forward for such work fails to attend or walks out on a grower, that person runs the risk of losing their entitlement to a benefit.

"But if that happens and growers choose to use illegal foreign workers, they can hardly be surprised if the Immigration Service then visits their businesses.

"The removal of draconian and punitive programmes like work-for-the-dole has not given beneficiaries an excuse to avoid seasonal work in Northland, or anywhere else in the country.

"While I acknowledge that the labour demands of Northland growers have been difficult to meet, Work and Income is not sitting on its hands.

"There is still work to do to accommodate the needs of growers and Work and Income and other government departments are working hard to achieve that."

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