Yesterday, I decided I wanted to find some seasonal work picking fruit so I can make some casual cash while I am traveling Aotearoa on a road-trip. I’d heard that a lot of workers who take on seasonal fruit picking jobs get treated horribly and I don’t doubt it. I’ve had friends who undertook this type of work describe it as “slave labour”. But I thought to myself, “what is a month of being paid the minimum wage and picking fruit because I’m sure I can hack it, for the extra cash?” And I really need the cash at the moment. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
I decided to look on New Zealand’s BackPacker job board which is geared towards people wanting short term work and who, like me, are road tripping around Aotearoa. I checked out some ads for housekeeping and cleaning as well as fruit picking. One of the very first ads I looked at very blatantly stated that as employers they pay below the minimum wage, of $16.50 an hour. What the actual fuck:
I’ll level with you, I have worked low waged jobs most of my life as such I am not really surprised by the ads I read which publicly advertised breaking employment standards. Employers have offered me less than the minimum wage and I took it, because I was desperate and I needed the cash. Regardless of my own lived experience and hard won knowledge, it still annoyed me because it was so brazen and so arrogant.
Here is another ad I found which is looking for a farm hand and offering just $500 a week, and the worker is expected to work a seven day roster, with 6am starts each morning. Not only does this breach minimum wage standards but would be a clear cut case of exploitation. Plenty of employers coerce workers into taking jobs which pay less than the minimum wage but most of them are smart enough to do it behind closed doors:
The job above would likely be cash-in-hand meaning, the worker’ is forced to become part of the insidious ‘Black Economy’. Which leaves them in a vulnerable position because they are coerced into committing tax fraud. And for the record offering below the minimum doesn’t just breach minimum employment standards, it also amounts to wage theft. Yes: stealing. Yet these employers, Farmers, whatever they wanna call themselves, seem to be getting away with daylight robbery.
Anyway I decided I’d had enough of these types of ads being unchecked by the site they run on. And, frankly, I am sick and tired of employers getting away with this shit, with zero accountability or consequences. I updated my FB with a simple and direct call to action:
The tactic I used to hold this employer to a form of accountability wasn’t my own. First Union used similar tactics a few years ago when they were pushing for ‘fair pay for fair work’ at individually owned Pak’N’Save supermarkets. Union reps and people on the picket-lines outside the supermarkets (including me) handed out flyers stating the owner of said supermarket was treating their staff poorly. The flyers asked people to text the owner demanding better pay for their workers. This means people can feel like they are pushing back and engaging in activism but they don’t have to risk job loss or harsh consequences. Every small action against injustice, counts.
As per my Facebook post people texted the owner of the employer in question and pointed out it was illegal to pay below the minimum wage. She responded to most of us stating versions of, “my mother was sick and I was overseas and I didn’t know the minimum wage had gone up.”
The governmental wage increase goes up annually at exactly the same time: April the 1st. She must have known? And I am sure the dozens of other employers advertising for workers but paying under the minimum wage on that BackPacking boards knew as well. Look, let’s say in some far off distant alternate universe I give these employers the benefit of the doubt. Maybe as business owners they truly didn’t know the basics of employment law or that the minimum wage goes up every year at the same time. This still begs the goddamn question of:
WHY DIDN’T THEY KNOW THE BASICS OF EMPLOYMENT LAW???!!!! THEY OWN A BUSINESS!! OMFGGGGGG!!!
Our media was abuzz with whinging employers who were pleading “poverty” over the hike of $00.75 cents. Cry me a river. It isn’t even that much more than the usual hike by our past right wing National government who pushed it up between $0.30 or $0.50. My point is that the media was teeming wth articles about the $00.75 cents increase when it was first announced. As such I find it hard to believe some employers somehow didn’t know about it.
Clear and blatant breaches of employment law on this site didn’t stop at minimum wage standards being breached. There was job ad after job ad for “work for accommodation and food”, which is pretty dodgy:
New Zealand has a strong wwoofing volunteer community and I understand travelers may want to learn organic farming or permaculture on a lifestyle block because the trade of learning skills, fresh kai, and a warm bed for unpaid work seems like a fair deal. But perhaps our wwoofing culture has lead to the normalisation of “food and accommodation” in exchange for unpaid work? Here is one such ad, for organic farming:
The job ad which asks for unpaid workers to help milk a thousand cows sounds like a massive and exhausting undertaking. And the ad also says “approx 4 hours work” each day, so there would be no saying how much you might end up working day to day. In what world does this even sound like a fair deal? Actually, I wouldn’t know what a fair deal looks like on a farm so I asked a Farmer who I will call Dairy Man*. He also happens to milk 1000 cows give or take. I asked him how many hours he works on average, he responded:
“The cows are milked twice a day through a 50-bail rotary shed for 10 months of the year. There are 6 full-time staff plus a calf rearer during calving & a student over summer.”
He told me his workers undertake around four hours of work a day. But during “calving” which takes place from August through to September, he told me his workers easily do between “11-12 hours a day”. I asked if trading work on a farm for “accomodation and food” was a fair deal? It was a “no” from him:
“No, it’s not a fair trade. All my staff are paid decent salaries and have accommodation provided on farm at 3/4 market rate.
My lowest paid staff members are on about $20/hour.”
Clearly, some farmers including lifestyle farmers, are taking the utter piss? And are far more about operating on a modern day form of feudalism than giving their “volunteers” an enriching and positive learning experience.
I am going to break this down for you in employment law speak: It’s likely these employers offering “accommodation and food” (and there were tonnes of them) in place of real wages are gonna be in breach of New Zealand’s Zero Hours Act. This act was brought in around two years ago in April. A lot of governmental changes to employer law happen in April and employers should know this! How do they NOT know this???
This Employment Standards Act was a hard won piece of legislation and came about thanks to the hard mahi of Fast Food Workers and Unite Union, battling against contracts called Zero Hours. These types of contract invoke unfair penalties against workers and cause crippling economic uncertainty. The Act was part of a package which aimed to prevent and push back against unfair work practices. If your “volunteers” are working consistent but varying hours that extend past the agreed hours of work, you could be in breach of this Act. Especially if your “volunteers” are working unpaid for an extended amount of weeks and months with no real set start and finish times or agreed hours, or even payment. Giving them some kai and a couch in exchange for such hard labor isn’t fair.
It would seem our agricultural industry is the the Wild West of workers’ rights when it comes to employment relations. Anything goes. If your business practices depend on unpaid labour and breaking the law then maybe ya’ just shouldn’t be in business.
Here is a run down of the Act, in case any workers/volunteers want to empower themselves and any employers want be less of a cunt… opps, sorry I meant exploitative:
ZERO HOURS ACT’ RUN DOWN: CLICK HERE
I’ve got to ask: are the employers who are offering below the minimum wage or asking for “volunteer labor” on the BackPacker board, just really ignorant about employment law, as at least one of them is claiming? Or does their brazen and arrogant flouting of employment law have much more to do with the fact that there is almost no oversight (in these industries) by the MBIE (Ministry for Business and Innovation). In Auckland, this Ministry Department only has 11 worker labour inspectors to cover every business in one of our major cities. Couple this with the reality that over the last 30-odd years, consecutive governments have dismantled unions’ bargaining power, making it harder, and harder, for them to function/operate and access sites/workplaces. As such workers have become disempowered and unfairly disadvantaged, and wages have (by design) stagnated for our lowest earning workers.
Thanks to all this Hot Neoliberal Mess, workers often have little representation from Unions or consecutive Governments. Thus what has resulted is that most of the power within the workplace (and that includes farms) has been transferred from workers and now sits with employers who rarely face any consequences for breaking the law. So they continue to break it with impunity, because they can. Because no one has stopped them.
UPDATE: I spoke to Radio New Zealand about employers advertising that they are paying below the minimum:
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