Federated Farmers vice-president Andrew Hoggard says farmers should pay backpackers market rates if they want to keep a handy pool of casual labour and avoid volunteer workers.
The Employment Relations Authority ruled an organic farm near Christchurch breached worker rights by paying them $120 a week plus providing food and lodging irrespective of the hours worked, and claiming they were volunteers after a Labour Inspectorate investigation. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment said in a statement that thousands of people had been exploited at the farm, working up to 40 hours a week and often as hired out labour at a profit for Robinwood Farms director and shareholder Julia Osselton.
Fed Farmers' Hoggard has drawn on backpackers to fill in on his farms, saying they're a handy resource for plugging gaps, however he's sceptical of farmers using volunteer work.
"They're often bloody good kids, keen to travel and experience things, but you've got to pay them for the work they do - giving them experience isn't payment," Hoggard said. "At the moment we've got a good pool of seasonal staff who can fill in at times, but if people start to abuse it, it gets harder and you could lose that."
The ERA ruled Robinwood Farms has to pay two former employees $2,600 each that they were owed, and broader penalties of up to $20,000 per person per breach are still under discussion, MBIE said.
Osselton claimed the workers were WWOOFers (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) on a cultural exchange, although Labour Inspectorate Stu Lumsden said that wasn't the case. WWOOF NZ said the farm isn't registered with the official group and had asked Osselton not to pitch her farm as such.
WWOOF NZ is part of an international network where host farmers offer food and accommodation in exchange for volunteer work by travellers often interested in learning about organic farming. The local organisation currently has about 10,000 WWOOFers, largely from Europe, the US and Australia, and that number has been relatively stable for the past couple of years, it said in an emailed statement.
Robinwood characterises itself as a WWOOFing farm on its Facebook page, something WWOOF NZ has sought to have removed.
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