12 Jan 2016

Govt happy with farm conditions monitoring

5:19 pm on 12 January 2016

The Government is ruling out an an inquiry into the pay and conditions of farm workers in New Zealand, saying standards are already in place.

Former Council of Trade Unions head Helen Kelly made the call, saying many farm workers were working up to 70 hours a week for low pay, and that was leading to high staff turnover.

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Photo: 123rf.com

She said fatigue was a major cause of workplace accidents, and an official inquiry was needed to introduce regulations.

But Workplace Relations Minister Michael Woodhouse said the Labour Inspectorate already monitored non-compliance with minimum employment standards in the dairy sector.

As well, officials were also working with the horticulture industry to address non-compliance in that sector.

In the past week, classifieds listed by the New Zealand Farm Source Jobs website included an assistant manager to milk cows for 70 hours a week with two days off out of 10 (salary negotiable), a farm assistant to work a 60-hour week with two days off out of 12, for $45,000 a year and a farm assistant to work a 55-hour week with every second weekend off (salary negotiable).

A recent report by Federated Farmers put staff turnover at 87 percent within five years, and 42 percent within a year.

"I think it's endemic in the industry - huge staff turnover, low wages, lack of investment in training, long and increasing hours, a high accident rate - that's why I'm calling for an inquiry into farm work," Ms Kelly said.

Federated Farmers' dairy chair Andrew Hoggard said the industry was not for everyone.

"There is certainly a number of farms where the second weekend off is how they operate, I myself do five days on, two days off, but not everyone can operate that way."

He said he had people in the past turn down jobs because they wanted every second weekend off to "hit the town", which he said was unrealistic.

But he maintains overall, conditions are improving.

"There have been increases year-in, year-out in terms of the wages and the time off... what was the norm in my father's day isn't any more - I know his granddad basically expected him to work every day.

"What the norm is now won't be the case when my daughters decide to run the farm."

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Helen Kelly is calling for a government inquiry into farm work. Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Ms Kelly said a change needed to happen sooner.

"There is no collective bargaining in farm work or regulation of hours - there's nothing farmers can do," she said.

"We know that fatigue is a major cause of workplace accidents, but alongside that people are getting paid rubbish."

She said many migrant workers were also getting drawn into the problem.

But Ben De'Ath, who is the managing director of Cross Country Recruitment, said that was not necessarily the case.

"Farmers are smart, realistic people - they know if they offer those kinds of hours there won't be anyone applying for their jobs," he said.

"There are workaholics and bosses who push people in every profession.

"I think it's misguided to think migrants are going to be forced to work more hours than others because their contracts will have to go through the scrutiny of Immigration New Zealand, who are really on the ball in that area."

Federated Farmers' data showed the average salary for dairy assistants in the last financial year was $40,570 per year and average workload was 46 hours per week.

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Photo: 123rf.com

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