Review to expose farmers ripping off migrant labour

By Andrew Stone

Photo / APN
Photo / APN

Rogue dairy farmers exploiting migrant workers have no place in the industry, a senior farming leader says.

Federated Farmers dairy chairman Willy Leferink, who has a large dairy enterprise near Ashburton, accepts that a nationwide review of the migrant labour force on dairy farms will reveal employment breaches.

But he thinks the number of farmers caught in the compliance inspection will be low.

Sharemilker Christina Tawatao, an advocate for Filipino dairy workers, says she gets complaints from migrants alleging pay ripoffs and poor conditions but the complaints are often hard to prove because the workers don't want to jeopardise their jobs or immigration status in the case of temporary workers.

She welcomes the farm review, saying it could eliminate illegal work practices.

Thousands of migrant dairy workers have come to New Zealand over the last five years for jobs in the booming industry, figures showing 11,636 arrivals between July 2008 and April this year. Most are Filipino, though several hundred have come from Fiji, India and Chile.

The majority have found work in Canterbury and Southland. Under New Zealand labour law, migrants must be given employment contracts and be paid at least the minimum wage. In the dairy sector, employers must also give workers wet weather gear.

According to Mrs Tawatao, who came in 2006 and now runs a farm near Ashburton with husband Roderick, migrants have been made to buy their own gumboots and raincoats, and often had disputes over hours with their bosses.

She said breaches were not widespread but they did exist and the farm inspections could help.

Labour inspectors with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment started visiting farms in December to check on compliance with minimum employment rights. Results of the initial visits revealed employers on 31 out of 44 farms were breaking the law, a result the ministry called "disappointing".

Many breaches involved time recording, where employer and staff had to sign timesheets confirming hours worked. One farmer had to pay $6000 for shortchanging his employee. In eight instances, workers had been employed without proper contracts.

No prosecutions had been laid, a ministry spokeswoman acknowledged, but inspectors would follow up enforcement notices to check breaches had been rectified. If employers failed to comply, orders could be sought from the Employment Relations Authority.

Inspectors planned to visit 40 farms across the country with migrant workers, who were "a particularly vulnerable section of the workforce and an increasing focus of MBIE's compliance action", the spokeswoman said.

Though inspectors would not take translators, officials would have access to Immigration NZ's translation line.

Mr Leferink, whose sharemilkers employ two Filipino workers and one from Africa, said the number of rogue dairy employers would be similar to the number of rogue building bosses. But in his experience migrant employees were "bloody good workers" and had strong support networks, including advocates and lawyers, to protect their interests.

"There are still some rogue employers. The same names turn up time and again."

- NZ Herald

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