The Baddies of Agriculture: Employers or Employees?

A couple of days ago, John Key launched an attack on employees, labeling kiwi workers as lazy drug abusers. Key suggested immigrants were needed for seasonal work, as they are more reliable and harder working than local workers. While there are obvious arguments to be made here challenging the validity of his statements, this article instead aims to provide some context around industry practice.

Our agricultural sector is big, harvest seasons typically cause huge influxes of workers to those regions of the country. It’s not unreasonable to expect upwards pressure on the wages of seasonal work, workers are in high demand, but short supply. It’s surprising, then, to see the first results of a Google search for “fruit picking jobs” to result in a list of companies offering minimum wage for fruit pickers.

Jobs in agriculture are even worse. New Zealand Farm Source, a major farm labour recruitment website, advertises jobs with dubious conditions. A cursory search of the site reveals one promising a measly $40,000 per annum, while demanding an average of 56 hours a week, putting the pay rate at about $14 an hour, far lower than the minimum wage. Helen Kelly, former president of the Council of Trade Unions, has been tracking jobs on NZ Farm Source, and regularly finds jobs requiring dangerously long working hours, offering low pay (often below minimum wage) and necessitating illegal employment contracts.

Employment contracts are never provided to large tracts of agricultural workers. One in five workers are employed, illegally, without a contract. Agricultural employers are far less likely to comply with employment law when hiring workers.

In saying New Zealand workers are lazy and drug dependent, John Key is providing thinly masked defence of an exploitative and abusive industry. Kiwis expect to be treated better, and they demand their employers act lawfully. Immigrant workers face the threat of deportation if they ever challenge their employers, and uncertainty about whether their visas, which are linked to their employers, will remain valid if they complain.

Abusive employers should expect stroppy employees. We should be celebrating the kiwis who take their less-than-minimum-wage paycheck and stand on a shovel all day. Key’s statement is clearly untrue, but provides the reader with a good course of action for combatting bad employment practice; get high and stay home.

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