Foreign students desperate for work in the Bay of Plenty are being paid below minimum wage, a recently published study says.
And rogue contractors and financially struggling kiwifruit growers are to blame, a labour contractor said.
With no student-allowance payments and often minimal support from home, many foreign students rely on part-time work to pay their living costs while they study in New Zealand.
Desperate for work, and unable to find jobs in their areas of study, many find employment in the Bay's horticultural sector.
A recently published report by researchers from AUT and Sydney universities investigated the students' employment conditions, interviewing 93 foreign students living in the Bay of Plenty region between August 2010 and April 2011. All were being paid less than the minimum wage, with some receiving just $8 an hour.
Most of the students were male Indians in their 20s.
The Bay of Plenty Times spoke to two such students this week. Both have worked on kiwifruit orchards.
"It's a hard work to do but it's simple to find a job to earn a little bit [of] money for surviving," one said.
"[Some] kiwifruit contractors are taking advantage of the students. They are giving less than the minimum wage, for example $10 per hour or $9 per hour, it depends on the contractor."
Hundreds of students were being underpaid but none wanted to risk their jobs by complaining, the pair said.
"The students feel angry but they can't do anything else because it's not their home town.
"... If they make an issue with the grower or contractor it will be bad impact on them."
Mat Johnston, BOP chairman of the NZ Kiwifruit Contractors, acknowledged some labour contractors were probably underpaying staff.
"There's no doubt that there are rogues out there, generally fly-by-nighters that are doing that, but that would be the same no matter who the staff are," he said.
Kiwifruit growers often contracted the picking, packing or pruning work to contractors who organised and paid the labourers.
He estimated about 150 labour contractors were operating in the Bay of Plenty region.
Some students worked more than the 20 hours allowed on their work permits, putting them in an awkward position when it came to complaining about pay rates, he said.
The industry had formed a labour governance group to "stamp out" unprofessional practices, but recent financial pressures may have made some growers more sensitive to labour costs and less sensitive to workers' rights, Mr Johnston said.
"At the moment, the industry is going through a very hard time with the Psa, so maybe that's making it easier for these guys [rogue contractors]."
However, New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers chief executive Mike Chapman said: "The majority of growers stick to the rules.
"There may be one or two cases but if you treat your workers right, they treat your vines right and that's how you make money."
Foreign students accounted for a small percentage of the 15,000 to 16,000 workers employed in the Bay of Plenty kiwifruit industry and were not an essential part of the workforce, Mr Chapman said.
About 2000 kiwifruit growers were in the Bay of Plenty, he said.
Alleged exploitation of foreign students was a "top priority" for the newly formed Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, a spokesman from the ministry's labour group said.
The ministry had received a low level of complaints, the spokesman said. When asked by the Bay of Plenty Times how many complaints had been received, the spokesman suggested the newspaper lodge an Official Information Act request for the information.
"... the ministry has taken enforcement action, but in the majority of cases, education of both parties has been the more effective approach."