If ever the dairy industry needed a sharp reminder why the planned Workplace Accord is so necessary, it came yesterday with confirmation from MBIE that it is taking enforcement action against 19 dairy farmers for breaching employment laws.
It's important not to generalise the level of farmer non-compliance to the industry as a whole. But in a dairy sector that is increasingly reliant on imported immigrant labour there will be strong peer pressure for the delinquent farmers to lift their game and to stamp out any worker exploitation.
The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment's (MBIE) labour inspectors visited 29 dairy farms in nine regions to check compliance with employment laws more than half of the farmers had been targeted due to complaints.
MBIE's Natalie Gardiner says the level of non-compliance identified in the three-month operation was "extremely high." and it was disappointing to find that a significant number of farmers still do not have systems in place to keep accurate time and wage records.
Federated Farmers has confronted the issue head on.
The Feds' Dairy Chair Andrew Hoggard acknowledges it wasn't a great look for the industry to have so many employers non-compliant.
"MBIE inspectors targeted some of the farmers who were known to have existing employment compliance concerns, while others were random, so ratios of compliance cannot be generalised to dairy farmers at large," Hoggard says.
"But this does not take away the stern reminder of where the industry is at or our motivation to achieve the task we have set ourselves to get the whole industry to achieve above minimum standards."
On this score, Federated Farmers is developing a Workplace Accord with DairyNZ and other industry stakeholders.
It's also been holding Employment Compliance Workshops' across the country to ensure that farmers know what MBIE's minimum standards are and introducing more farmers to accounting solutions. Hoggard makes the point that the farmers surveyed who were using IMS, MYOB and I Payroll systems were all fully compliant.
Interestingly, Hoggard says raising standards and changing the perception of the dairy industry as a career is also integral to attracting the next generation into the industry.
"Changing the reality" on some farms as Hoggard urges will take the sector so far. But MBIE is also making it clear it will not hesitate to take action for breaches of employment law.
An MBIE statement says breaches will be subject to compliance action and potential penalties of up to $10,000 for individuals and $20,000 for companies,"
In all MBIE issued 15 Improvement Notices and four Enforceable Undertakings for a total of 71 minimum employment standard breaches. The majority of breaches related to poor record keeping, but several farms had significant minimum-wage breaches and there is estimated arrears owed of more than $120,000.
Nine of the more serious cases are being considered for filing with the Employment Relations Authority.
The MBIE action underlines why top trade unionist Helen Kelly has been on a crusade to ensure that dairy workers both immigrants and New Zealanders are treated fairly.
The Council of Trade Unions president has previously claimed dairy farmers are using skills shortages to bring in foreign workers, but there is no test that the wages and conditions on offer would be acceptable to New Zealanders.
"The deal shouldn't be they can get a migrant, and exploit a migrant to do it, we have to have a model that allows Kiwis to be trained, to have decent conditions, to get a share of the wealth of this industry."
The industry doesn't accept Kelly's broadbrush claims, but the outcome of the MBIE operation will give all players food for thought -- and action.