Bill English has been grilled by workers at an orchard pack house - who told him it was too hard to survive on current wages and the cost of food was too high.

A couple of the workers at Kaiaponi Farms near Gisborne also raised the case of a recent workmate who had to go off work after a major heart attack but was rejected for a sickness benefit.

At one point English was in a back-and-forth exchange with Robin Lane, who told him minimum wage increases were simply not enough for many to survive on.

He was then asked about the high cost of food, and Simon Clarke and another woman raised the issue of their former workmate, whose family was scraping by after his heart attack and treatment by WINZ.


The orchard grows apples and kiwi fruit and packs citrus fruit. It also uses irrigation and will be affected by Labour's proposed water royalty - something English and Primary Industries spokesman Nathan Guy mentioned during the visit.

But after photo opportunities standing in front of lemons and mandarins, English took questions from the assembled workers and quickly found National's record under attack.

Lane asked about minimum wage increases, saying over the past nine years it didn't feel like increases had matched the cost of living.

"Given we have a strong economy, why is it that the adult minimum wage only goes up like 25 cents. I know you said it's the cost of living. But that's not really true. It's not."

English said it had been increasing a bit more than the cost of living index, and on April 1 next year there would be extra because tax on the minimum wage would reduce.

"The experience of people is a bit different from the average...some people experience lower, some people higher. And where there is particular shifts like rental changes, then that is picked up through the accommodation supplement."

English said he accepted people wanted to see incomes higher, and the key to that in the long run was having successful industries.

"We will continue to increase the minimum wage," English said, before Lane replied that it had only gone up by $3.75 over the past nine years.


"Now how would you like it if your hourly rate went up $3.75 over a period of nine years?"
English said, "it would be quite a challenge, I've got no doubt about that".

"You have a bit of pressure on you, and that's why we keep these consistent moderate increases flowing through because that's how the floor rises."

"Oh, moderate," Lane said.

Simon Clarke asked about the workmate who had been turned away from WINZ after suffering a heart attack.

"Him and her are suffering on the minimum wage, trying to live off one wage. He has been told by a doctor he is not fit to work."

English said eligibility hinges on a doctor's assessment and income. East Coast MP Anne Tolley, accompanying English, said they should come to her and she would see what could be done to help.

Another worker spoke up, saying it wasn't easy for normal people to negotiate such disputes with institutions. Tolley said she had five electorate offices for that reason.
But the worker said her former colleague had tried his hardest.

"They said, oh we can give you $9. How is $9 going to help? It should be officially recognised in Parliament that the minimum work just does not cut it, for the requirements of just basic living every week. It just does not do it. We are lucky if we have got $2 over at the end of each week. It's just a fact."

Another worker asked about the high cost of food.

"We can't afford really expensive fruit and vegetables. But you can afford a 99 cent package of pasta. Is there any way to do something with food and getting the good stuff into us instead of crap?

"Budget-wise, we can't afford to spend a crap-ton on fruit and vegetables, the stuff we should be there any way you can make things like butter, for example, it's cheaper to buy Irish butter than New Zealand butter. Just little things like that."

English said it came down to incomes, and National's political opponents "want to take more tax off you and drop your income".

"I know you'd like to see it rising faster...the right answer is that this industry is more successful, that we lower your taxes so you do get a bit more."

Nathan Guy ended the at times testy question and answer session by telling the workers he would leave them to consider how important it is to have "a reliable flow of water in your community to sustain jobs".

He said Labour's royalty on water would directly impact on Kaiaponi Farms, and ultimately on job security.

Afterwards, Lane told the Herald she had moved to Gisborne from Auckland in 2008.

"I got a night shift job doing the apples. And all of the women on night shift had day jobs. They were all on the minimum wage or just slightly above for years.

"National like to think we have a low wage economy. That's a selling point to businesses. They don't want that minimum wage to go up."

Simon Clarke said he asked English about his colleague who suffered a heart attack on behalf of the man's son, who also works in the packhouse on the same line.

"There are some people out there on the sickness benefit which I'll tell you now, I don't know how they are on it. And there are some people in my family on it that I don't know what they are doing on it.

"Then there are ones like that who have a genuine reason for it and they are struggling. As Anne Tolley said, you can go and approach her. But you shouldn't have to go and approach her."