Cleaning up the kiwifruit industry

Photo: File.

“Kiwifruit picking – why on earth would you?”

A seasoned picker and pruner slamming the industry which has employed him for 35 years. And which, for the first time in 14 years, officially declared a seasonal labour shortage.

“I have slogged my guts out to make you all rich,” says Mike Pratt in a message to The Weekend Sun, but directed at the kiwifruit industry. And to prospective kiwifruit pickers – “don’t be tricked into joining the circus like me or you’ll get trapped in a life of poverty and broken promises. You have been warned.”

Mike says he loves the kiwifruit industry. “But I also want to stand up for the good bloke who works in it.”

Today he was driving a tractor for a picking gang. “Eight hours in the orchard for four hours pay. It’s worse than ever.”

The industry’s been screaming out for an additional 1200 workers to pick and pack a bumper kiwifruit crop this season. But either that crucial element of the seasonal labour force, the students and backpackers, wasn’t there, or, as Mike suggests, they got wise and are working out of kiwifruit.

Mike has a litany of allegations about the industry’s treatment of its labour force.

“Okay, it’s weather dependent, but drive an hour to work and an hour home, and if it rains, there’s no work and no pay. You’re penalised for turning up and wanting to work.”

He also cites packhouse politics, labour teams being favoured with work and better conditions, a dodgy contract system, seriously low wages and getting lied to and used.

“Rort after rort,” he says. And, he says, there’s no comeback. “There are no unions, no-one’s got your back. And if you complain, you’re off, we will replace you.”

New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc – the voice for the country’s 2600 growers, is not surprised. Nikki Johnson of New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc says the industry is aware of a wide range of issues regarding worker welfare.

“And we’re aware some of the employers in the industry haven’t been respecting their employees as much as they should be. And we don’t want those employers in the industry.” But now NZKGI has compliance protocols in place to address those issues.

Meg’s in the job market. It’s like a mud run – hard to make progress. Meg’s 20, vivacious, driven, smart. She’s put out 50 job applications. “Nothing that required qualifications.” But not one reply. She needed food and gas money. “I didn’t want to mooch off my parents anymore, so any bum job.” She went kiwifruit picking.

“It looked like they paid okay, a pretty easy $16.50 an hour to be honest. I wondered why more people weren’t doing it.” She says she didn’t wonder for long.

“There was a complete lack of communication – it was impossible to get information, to know who was who, what was what and what the expectations were. I didn’t even know who was paying me.”

Meg would arrive at work, as stipulated, at 7.50am, ready to start. “Then we would have to sit around waiting in the break room for hours. We wouldn’t know when there would be picking and if there would be picking.” And remember, no picking, no pay.

Another day, there had been no messages, no instructions, and no-one had shown up at the orchard, so she decided to go home. On the way someone arrived and asked if she was working. “I said I just don’t know, am I working? So frustrating.”

On yet another day, to save any inconvenience, she texted the contractor. “What’s going on? Am I working?” He didn’t get back. “I didn’t know what was going on, where I was meant to be, what hours I was getting. I was sick of it.”

The way the job was advertised, Meg understood there was choice of being paid the minimum wage or by volume of fruit picked, a by-the-bin system. It turned out to be the bin system and the money was split between all the pickers.

“That didn’t make sense because some would be picking harder and faster than others.”

“Exactly,” says Mike. “Why share a bin rate with someone who’s hung over, has a cold, sore back or neck, or both. Someone not really interested in working. Why would you want to carry others?”

Again, Nikki Johnson says the industry is aware. ”Things like not paying the minimum wage, not having employment agreements in place, not calculating holiday pay correctly – little bits of employment law that haven’t been dealt with correctly.

“Some is naivety because dealing with casual contracts can be quite difficult. “Understanding the Holiday Act and paid breaks, it’s really complicated. And because you have such a transient work force, it’s hard to get some things absolutely right.”

But shouldn’t a huge, well-established and wealthy industry have systems in place to get it right?

“It’s quite a unique situation. In general growers don’t employ the seasonal labour – they employ a contractor to provide the labour, and those contractors are often small businesses that haven’t quite figured it all out.”

Isn’t it incumbent on growers to identify reputable, reliable and honest contractors who know what they are doing?

“Yes, it is,” says Nikki. “But it’s difficult to know whether that contractor they have employed is doing the right thing or not so we encourage our growers to have conversations with the workers.”

So this year the NZKGI introduced a compulsory contractor compliance programme – this social responsibility programme requires all labour contractors in the kiwifruit industry to be registered and audited for compliance.

It’s the first year – and all growers have the responsibility of ensuring the contractor they use is registered and audited.

“I would hope there would be a lot less of the concerns that you have presented to me next year,” says Nikki. “We are certainly on a journey of education.”

To both Mike and Meg, Nikki would say there are a number of very good employers in the industry that look after their workers very well. “Don’t work for one that doesn’t. There’s a lot of work this season. Go find a good one.”

And she says there needs to be more confidence that the majority of kiwifruit employers are good employers who look after their workers. “But that will take time.”

There’s also the downside of a seasonable job that is impacted by weather. “And we recognise that. The pay rates recognise that as well,” says Nikki. “Our data shows a picker can now earn on average $21 an hour, so that’s significant.”

And it’s meant to reflect workers only get paid for hours picking. “There’s a further conversation about what we do we do when it rains for three days. But that’s a difficult conversation because the grower’s not getting his fruit picked, the contractor’s not making any money and so how can they pay the workers for not doing anything? It’s a really difficult question.”

Mike has his own suggestion to improve the labour pool. “When the backpackers leave the country after working in the kiwifruit orchards, give them all their tax back. They will go home and encourage others.”