Thursday, December 7, 2023

Rural work practices criticised

Neal Wallace
Horticulture New Zealand chief executive Mike Chapman has taken exception to a study alleging exploitation of migrant workers saying it does not accurately reflect employment practices in the sector.
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The two-year University of Auckland Business School study interviewed 105 workers, migrants and people-trafficking advocacy groups and followed media stories about the experience of migrant and NZ-born workers.

One of the report’s authors, Dr Christina Stringer said it “suggests exploitation of migrant and NZ-born workers is widespread across many key industries, including horticulture, hospitality and construction.”

In the horticulture and dairy sectors the study found temporary migrant workers rather than those born in NZ had been exploited.

Chapman said exploitation of workers was not widespread or common in the horticulture sector which employed 60,000 people.

He had issues with aspects of the report.

“This particular piece of research does not accurately portray employment practices across horticulture and draws from a very small sample group of 105, of which it is not clear how many were employed in horticulture.”

Stringer said university ethical constraints precluded her approaching workers, which could be seen as coercion, so she had to advertise for workers to approach her.

From those initial meetings other workers spoke to her and she was satisfied with her conclusion that the problem was widespread.

Her research found those working for horticultural contractors were most at risk and her report mentioned Indian, Indonesian and Asian gangmasters setting up as contractors to exploit fellow migrant workers.

The report cited migrant workers paying substantial fees to contractors for work, being made to work 12-hour days, seven days a week for little pay or being made to work in breach of immigration conditions.

She acknowledged it was difficult to police.

“Kiwifruit, for example, there are so many contractors it is a huge task for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and the Labour Inspectorate to police.”

There were also cases of international students working for 55 hours a week and being paid $8 an hour.

Stringer said illegal businesses undercut legitimate operations but the produce all ended up in the same supply chain.

She urged large industry bodies and companies to take a stronger stand against those exploiting migrants.

Chapman said it was up to government agencies to prosecute, if necessary, but when made aware of issues, Horticulture NZ worked with employers to ensure they had access to agreements or were appropriately trained.

The report noted that changing demographics, growth in both dairy and horticulture and a shift away from family-owned units had created labour shortages.

The recognised seasonal employer scheme allowed Pacific Islanders to work in orchards but it had not stopped illegal labour practices.

Stringer said migrant dairy workers being exploited by sharemilkers was more common than by owner-operators, which could be because of financial pressure from recent plummeting milk prices.

Migrant workers in Southland were positive about their experience, saying Federated Farmers and farmers had actively worked to improve working conditions.

Other dairy workers also acknowledged conditions had improved in recent years and Stringer said that was because of the efforts of Federated Farmers and DairyNZ to educate employers and employees.

It was an initiative she said the sector should continue with.

Despite that, some migrants reported working from 3am to 8pm or 9pm, milking 1400 cows twice a day with one other person and having to kill 300 bull calves with a hammer.

Recruiters were also found to have charged migrants exorbitant application fees and made false promises of jobs and wages.

The report also noted a 2014 study by MBIE which found 31 of 44 dairy farms visited were in breach of employment standards.

“This finding is of concern.”

DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle said the exploitation of any farm employee was not condoned or accepted.

“As in any sector there will always be a handful of dairy businesses that fall short of managing their people in a respectful way but I assure you most dairy farmers around the country know full well that happy workers are essential for the smooth running of the farm.”

The report noted Filipino migrant workers were considered crucial to the dairy industry, especially in Southland, a fact highlighted in a table accompanying the report.

In 2006-07 278 temporary work permits were issued for Filipino farm workers, a third of all temporary work permits issued that year, rising to 806 the following year and then increasing slowly to 1055 in 2012-013.

In 2013-14 1359 permits were issued and in 2014-015 the figure reached 1746 making up 52% of all temporary work permits issued that year.

There was a sudden decline in the 2015-16 year to 728, 47% of all temporary work permits issued. 

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