National, Labour MPs in tense spat over benefit sanctions, fruit picking

The Government and the Opposition have clashed over benefit sanctions and fruit picking during Question Time in the House on Thursday afternoon.

Employment Minister Willie Jackson said National's spokesperson for horticulture Lawrence Yule should be "ashamed of himself" for questions about benefit sanctions, while Mr Yule took him to task over a shortage of fruit pickers.

Mr Yule asked the Minister if he stood by his previous statement that the Government "won't be punishing everybody who mucks up".

"I come from a background where giving people a second, third, and fourth chance is the norm. Forgiveness means everything in our communities and not giving up on people has been part of our lifelong philosophy," Mr Jackson said.

Mr Yule, who is the MP for Tukituki, asked whether a job-seeker was "mucking up" if they refused to pick fruit while receiving the job-seeker support benefit.

"There are a lot of circumstances around different individuals, it's not just black and white," Mr Jackson replied.

"It's easy to make that assessment to start off with but we have to look at what's happening in the family and I'm disappointed that that a man from Ngāti Kahungunu is talking in this manner."

Mr Yule asked whether unemployed Kiwis should turn down fruit-picking if they believe it is undignified work, to which the Minister said there was no shame in picking fruit.

However he added that "a lot of circumstances come into play and that member should know that".

"It's not easy sometimes to move 50 kilometres, it's not easy sometimes to walk away from your family, it's not easy for people just to give up everything just to pick fruit," Mr Jackson said.

The debate turned to immigration and refugees, with Mr Yule asking if it was Government policy to fill labour shortages with refugees.

"We know we have a crisis at the moment… We'll do what the National Party was doing for nine years and fill the gap for a short while, but we're committed to local labour and we're committed to a comprehensive strategy in terms of employment down there in the Bay of Plenty, and we're committed to employing New Zealanders first," Mr Jackson said.

Mr Yule asked: "If it is good enough for refugees to pick fruit, why is it not good enough for unemployed New Zealanders to pick fruit?" which the Minister said was a "stupid question".

"As he well knows, people have big families, people have commitments, people can't just move at the drop of the hat like that person who has an uncaring and insensitive attitude to his local people and he should be ashamed of himself and I hope Ngāti Kahungunu totally dismisses him."

Earlier this week, the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) declared a seasonal labour shortage across the Bay of Plenty, with a shortfall of 1200 workers who are needed to pack an extra 20 million trays of kiwifruit.

Overseas workers can apply with visitor visas can apply for a variation of conditions to work through the declaration period, which runs until June 8.

MSD said between January and April this year, it had placed 1000 jobseekers into work in the kiwifruit industry.

FIRST Union has launched a Kiwifruit Workers Alliance because it is concerned that the MSD declaration will increase worker exploitation in the sector.