Government slammed over 'lack of urgency' in allowing stranded seasonal workers to change jobs

New rules were introduced due to COVID-19.
New rules were introduced due to COVID-19. Photo credit: File / Getty

The Government has been slammed for its delay in signing off visa status changes for seasonal workers stranded in central Otago.

Hundreds of orchard workers from Vanuatu and other Pacific islands were left stuck in the Teviot Valley in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown.

The recognised seasonal employer (RSE) workers were due to return home earlier this year but were unable to leave New Zealand as the coronavirus pandemic saw borders closed and flights cancelled.

But with work drying up and temperatures in the area dropping, the last few weeks have been a struggle for the group.

National's spokesperson for immigration Stuart Smith said there are jobs available for the workers in Marlborough, but due to visa regulations they haven't been allowed to move and take up the work until the necessary paperwork is signed off.

"There's no urgency being shown here and there is a cost to it," Smith told Newshub on Friday.

"It's a cost actually to those people who are stuck here; it's a cost to their employers in central Otago who are obliged to pay them even though there's no work, or very little; and it's a cost in Marlborough."

Smith said the situation should have been sorted quickly.

With the borders closed seasonal workers who normally arrive in the winter can no longer enter the country. Due to the shortage, there is pruning work available in Marlborough and both employers and the stranded workers have been keen for them to get on and get working.

However rules around work visas mean that couldn't happen without Immigration New Zealand (INZ) signing off on the change of employer and location, something Smith says took weeks.

"Because of the way their visa was issued they need a variation of conditions to allow them to come to Marlborough to prune grapes," Smith said. 

"They need to get these people here as quickly as possible to try and get the pruning finished in time.

"Just simply get on and change their conditions - now."

Helen Axby, chief executive of Seasonal Solutions Cooperative, a grower and contractor-owned cooperative, said the paperwork had now been largely signed off and some of the 248 workers were heading to Marlborough on Friday with more leaving on Monday. 

With temperatures in the region dropping in recent weeks, locals have rallied together to help provide warm clothes and other necessities, Axby said. 

A spokesperson for INZ said the rules requiring RSE workers to apply to move employers or regions had come into effect as a result of COVID-19.

"INZ is able to assess and decide visa applications for RSE workers reasonably quickly from when INZ has all the relevant information it needs to make a decision," the spokesperson said.

"However, INZ acknowledges that the application process for some workers has been taking longer than anticipated. 

"In some cases, this is due to RSE employers submitting incomplete applications which is causing processing delays."

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said both consular services and Civil Defence Management had been providing welfare support for migrant workers, and the Government was "actively considering other options to support migrants who find themselves without work or income".