Stained and mouldy mattresses, no insulation, a leaky roof, and no working toilet for four days are some of the conditions tourist workers claim they endured in a kiwifruit orchard woolshed turned into an accommodation building.
The former workers on working visas believe the accommodation facilities near Te Puke are sub-standard with one describing it as a "scam" and a "health hazard" — and the Western Bay of Plenty District Council is now investigating the matter.
Rangiuru Woolshed Accommodation is on a kiwifruit orchard and only available to people who have applied for seasonal kiwifruit work in the area through recruitment agency KiwiHQ.
The former woolshed sleeps 16 people and is owned by Michael Molan, who is director of the company and has previously been before the courts for his involvement in an immigration case.
Former guests described stained and mouldy mattresses, an uninsulated, leaky building, toilets that sometimes don't flush and showers that often ran cold. A guest needed to wash in a bucket on several occasions.
Molan admits the shed - for which he charges $130 a week per person - has no council consent. He says it offers a rural experience and claims the living conditions are on par with accommodation offered by other employers in the area.
The building was converted into the Rangiuru Woolshed Accommodation and officially listed as a company in May 2019.
Western Bay of Plenty District Council confirmed changing a shed into accommodation required a change of use and building consent application. The council sent a compliance officer to the site on Wednesday after being questioned by the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend.
The woolshed's website describes the accommodation as "rural and rustic accommodation," aimed at tourists on working visas.
The building includes a kitchen, two lounge areas, a kitchenette, a workout space, and a toilet and shower area with washing machines. There is a small fireplace in the middle of the large area.
The cost of the accommodation is $130 a week per person. There is an option for people to sleep in one of the vans provided by Molan for the same price. They can pay $110 a week if they sleep in their own vans.
The cost covers power, water, WiFi, and laundry facilities.
A Croatian man on a working holiday visa, who spoke on condition he was not named, said he stayed for 10 days before leaving because of the poor conditions.
In his view, the accommodation provided was a "scam" and a "health hazard".
"The place looks like an improvised storage structure that someone put up in one afternoon," he said.
In his opinion, those staying there were being exploited.
"The whole place is dirty, smelly, and full of mould and moisture," with a leaking roof.
The lack of insulation and heating meant he slept fully clothed on a mouldy mattress with three blankets and gloves, he said.
The worker claimed: "We didn't have running toilets for four days because he [Molan] didn't bother to call someone to empty the septic tank."
The employees shared one portable toilet for that time "which stank of chemicals" and filled up quickly.
Hot water was limited and there were several occasions where he used a bucket of warm water to wash instead of having a cold shower.
He said he did not have many encounters with Molan but complained to the supervisors about the conditions, "and they were like ... chill, it's okay".
While he did not expect five-star accommodation, in his opinion it was "unfair" to pay $130 per week.
On his last night, he was unable to sleep because of the cold, draughts, and rain coming through the roof.
"There's honest and good employers out there, I've worked for them, who pay decent wages and give decent accommodation. This guy is not one of them," he said, expressing his opinion.
Belgium traveller Pamela Biefnot and her partner Damian Dontje arrived at the Woolshed on August 16 after seeing an advertisement for the jobs on a backpackers page.
They paid $260 a week between them for the five days they stayed.
Things "started going downhill" when the toilet, although clean, did not flush properly, and nothing was done to fix it.
She said on one particularly windy night, the curtains were "blowing like crazy" through the metal-sheet building and plastic windows.
"It was pretty dark ... some parts of some rooms didn't have electricity."
The lack of insulation meant the fireplace did not warm the space, and a fan heater provided felt as if it was blowing cold air, she said.
They could constantly see their own breath from the cold and kept warm with layers of clothes and blankets.
She said all the mattresses had stains on them.
"It looked kind of brownish, but you couldn't really tell [what it was] ... hopefully not bodily fluids.
She said everyone appeared to think the living conditions were normal and was "shocked" so many people stayed there.
She did not raise her concerns because she did not want to "seem like a picky person".
German woman Sandrina Herbert worked for Molan, picking kiwifruit, at the end of May last year for one and a half weeks and was offered accommodation at the shed, but she left and found accommodation elsewhere.
"It was really, really bad ... we saw that everything was [done] as cheap as possible."
"I just found it so disgusting, and mouldy ... It was shocking ... I was really surprised that people lived there."
She ended up leaving the property and stayed at a campground in Tauranga "which was really amazing" and cost $120.
Molan said the criticism from former workers was "unfair" and the accommodation was merely an option for people who worked on the orchard.
Molan said the septic tank had filled on a Friday night and someone was contacted on Monday to empty it. It was emptied on Wednesday. In the interim, a portaloo was put in place and there was a toilet in his house and on the orchard which could be used.
The showers were heated by gas and he said the man who experienced the cold shower "decided to have a shower late at night and the gas had run out".
He said the accommodation was not a backpackers, was private, "not advertised", and was only available to people who applied for a job through his recruitment agency.
But the website, when viewed by the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend, was titled "backpackers paradise" and had basic information and prices listed.
Molan said the complaints about the hot water and toilets were all issues encountered in rural New Zealand.
He said he offered a rural "experience".
In terms of insulation, he said the accommodation was designed for people in campervans using the facilities, and one of the bunk rooms which slept eight people was insulated.
The other room, with four more bunk beds, was uninsulated. Molan said that room was created as an "overflow for the summer" when the insulated room was said to get too hot.
Sheets, blankets and pillows were all provided free, he said.
He started the facility as he was recruiting pickers and "basically they had nowhere to go".
He said a group of people, himself included, cleaned the woolshed. The guests then went on to tell others that they could park their van on site.
"If people are willing to stay here, you can stay here and we'll make it as comfortable as possible."
He said he had not had any contact with the council before this week despite charging people to stay inside the accommodation since May last year.
The building did not have council consent and he had no records of consents, approvals, or any certificates.
The Building Act 2004 outlines it is the owner's responsibility to obtain any necessary consents, approvals, and certificates.
"I'm assuming back in those days, it was built by professional builders."
That was as early as at least the 1950s, he said.
When asked by the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend why he had not contacted the council before, he responded: "Why?"
He continued: "We don't know, the council doesn't know what's in that building. It already had a bunkroom, it already had a kitchen, it already had shower facilities, it already had toilets."
He said there was no difference between what he was doing and what other packhouses in the area were doing, which is where he said he got his advice on how to run the place.
"It doesn't make it right ... maybe I should have checked it out. But what I'm saying is, I have gone through, I've asked questions, there are people doing that all over the place," he said.
"It's going to open up a massive can of worms of where does the regulation stop and start, and that's fine by me because I have no issues going with the council."
He said he was now working with the council.
Western Bay of Plenty District Council was not aware of the accommodation facility when asked by the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend on Monday.
The council's policy planning and regulatory services group manager Rachael Davie said the original building, in its previous use as a woolshed, predated the Building Act 2004 and the Resource Management Act 1991.
The change in use to an accommodation facility would have required a resource and building consent, she said.
When asked if charging people to stay in a non-consented building was illegal, she said the investigation was under way.
"But based on preliminary findings [the council] will be taking enforcement action."
The council received a complaint about the shed this week, which was the only alert it had been given about the woolshed.
A compliance officer went to the site on Wednesday and took photographs which were now being analysed.
An investigation report into the next steps is under way.
Davis said there were rules around establishing accommodation in a rural setting.
"There are also requirements under the building act for certain types of building," which was the New Zealand Building Code.
Michael Molan and Alexander Griffin are the company's directors, and both were appointed on May 3 last year - the same month the company was incorporated.
In 2011, RNZ reported Molan pleaded guilty to one charge of forgery and one count of misleading an immigration officer in relation to an immigration case involving farm workers from Fiji.
Immigration New Zealand said Molan created false documents when applying for work permits for the men in 2009, including submitting fake job offers and forging signatures of prospective employers.
Immigration New Zealand said in some cases it was duped into granting permits to the applicants.
Molan told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend the allegations made about him exploiting the Fijian kiwifruit workers were false, but he took responsibility for involving himself with "dodgy people".
"It's very hard for me, because I didn't exploit the workers and I'm not exploiting these guys," Molan said this week.