By Gill Bonnet of RNZ

New Zealand and immigrant workers are being pitted against each other as businesses wield the axe over thousands of jobs.

Unions say overseas staff are easier to make redundant - while one hotel has offered half of its remaining jobs to work visa holders.

Aoraki/Mt Cook Alpine Village Ltd, which owns the Hermitage Hotel, is axing two thirds of its staff. It said about half of those it has offered jobs to are temporary visa holders.

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But a barista, who RNZ has agreed not to name, said only two New Zealanders had been kept on, including the head chef.

That went against an undertaking at a meeting before lockdown, she said.

"They promised us at that meeting that the New Zealand citizens and residents obviously would be given preference when the choices were made," she said.

"I was given a written notice stating that I was eligible for the [remaining] barista positions. Which means, if I'm eligible there's at least six of us that would have been eligible for the barista position jobs.

"Not one of us has been given the position - it's been given to international people that are on work visas arranged by the hotel.

"I can't really explain, obviously there's a lot of favouritism as to who the manager likes I suppose, but at the end of the day, the whole of the country is going to have to pay their tax bills to pay for the dole that we're all going to go on, whereas these other ones wouldn't have been eligible."

The company's director, Peter Carnahan, said he could not comment on whether New Zealand workers were initially told they would be prioritised as he was not present.

But the ratio of New Zealand and Australian workers compared to work visa holders who have been offered jobs is closer to 50/50, he said.

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They needed to keep the right mixture of skills, he said, and the consequences for the community also weighed on their decisions.

"The actual final people are still being worked through right now," he said.

"So there are Australians and New Zealanders and there are also some people who are non-residents on visas of various different types.

"We've also tried to look after the families where there are children involved, so we have tried to retain those people as we can.

"There's a whole lot of reasons, including if we were to not retain staff who've got children at the local school, it might end up closing - so there's a lot of other things coming into the decision-making process.

"We've got to be aware of the bigger community ramifications of some of these decisions."

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With the extension of the wage subsidy more workers had been kept on - similar to winters in earlier years, he said.

Unite Union's national president, Mike Treen, wants the Government to insist on employers keeping all staff on the wage subsidy.

"If they did all this staff would be eligible, whether they were New Zealand residents or not," he said.

"When companies rush to implement redundancy and refuse the wage subsidy then it can be an awful situation for everybody really including, I think sometimes, the employer - who looks at the people they are going to be laying off and [asks] 'well, who's going to be able to access the unemployment benefit?', because what the Government hasn't done is allow migrant workers to access emergency benefits during this period of crisis - which they should be because they're not in a position to go home if they lose their job.

"Maybe they're thinking that the migrant workers might not be able to access the benefit, and this is an unintended consequence of that rather mean-spirited policy."

The union's industrial organiser, John Crocker, said the more common cases they are dealing with are immigrants being laid off.

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That is partly because it's easier - they can simply not renew the workers' visas, he said.

"Obviously with redundancy the workers need to be consulted, their feedback has to be given consideration," he said.

"A lot of union contracts will have redundancy provisions where the workers will get compensation.

"And then the worker will possibly have the right to take a grievance if they don't think the process is fair or the reasons for the redundancy are genuine. Just not renewing the visa gets you around all that."

There is frustration from New Zealand workers who were not prioritised, he said.

"I do understand that frustration, but there's a huge frustration on the other side for migrant workers who don't get the support that New Zealanders do from the welfare system - so it goes both ways."

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In a statement, Immigration New Zealand said: "There is no specific labour market test during a redundancy process but employers must follow the standard employment process whenever they want to make an employee redundant and ensure it is fair for all their employees."