Cleaning up the kiwifruit industry

“Kiwifruit picking – why on earth would you?”

A seasoned picker and pruner is 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 SunLive, 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.”



Posted on 16-06-2018 15:17 | By namxa

A lot of assumptions there mate…most of them probably wrong.

Nothing new

Posted on 16-06-2018 07:15 | By namxa

Have seen this going on for years.


Posted on 15-06-2018 17:16 | By ratepayer

well we are now going to increase wages for picking to $25.00 / hour but does any one want to work ?,and are they employable ,seems to me everyone wants to do very little work for for as much as they can extract from the industry never mind the fact that most people who grumble have poor attendance records dont work hard enough to justify paying them $25.00/hr if they dont earn minimum wage in the day the employer has to top them up out of his own pocket . why employ them


Posted on 15-06-2018 13:43 | By waiknot

There is only one problem GREED. And that leads to exploitation.

Think labour is short now

Posted on 15-06-2018 12:17 | By tish

wait for the new developments. Large developer south of town looking to bring into production 1000Ha of new orchard by 2028. Where will that labour force come from and where will they all sleep.


Posted on 15-06-2018 10:44 | By Merlin

Having worked in the NZ employment service many years ago I can confirm the frustration of the workers turning up then rain comes go home no pay plus the travel costs then the hassle of advising WINZ for top up.Something needs to be done with this problem.No wonder the workers get frustrated.The growers make quite good profits I believe off the backs of the workers.They should perhaps have a contract for the duration of the season which is only a few months but I can not see employers coming to the party because it would decrease their profits.


Posted on 15-06-2018 09:36 | By Patm

My 14 year old NZ citizen wanted to pick kiwifruit for the first time. As parents, we wanted to encourage this work ethic so agreed and drove her to a location south of Te Puke last Saturday and Sunday. She arrived on time eager to work but waited until the contractor eventually arrived. The communication was poor, no contracts or employment or tax forms available so we hoped for the best that she would be paid or we would have to stump up the money instead. The sad thing was foreign workers (probably illegal) from Spain constantly complained that she and her friends were too slow. The foreign workers continued to complain so the students were told to go home! They worked hard with little to no training and an industry screaming out for pickers but told to go home!

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to make a comment. Login Now