19 Jul 2017

Half of audited kiwifruit companies underpaid workers

10:04 am on 19 July 2017

At least half of the kiwifruit contractors who have been audited or investigated in the Bay of Plenty have failed to provide employment contracts or pay the minimum wage, an MBIE investigation has found.

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Photo: RNZ/Susan Murray

A Labour Inspectorate operation audited 62 labour companies and interviewed nearly 700 workers over three months last year. They found 53 per cent of employers failed to meet minimum employment standards, and almost all of these employers were using migrant labour.

Inspectors uncovered 94 breaches of the standards, and issued 20 improvement notices and six 'enforceable undertakings'. Two of the employers given improvement notices were also fined $1000 each.

NZ Kiwifruit Growers chief executive Nikki Johnson said the findings were disappointing, but not surprising.

"We've been aware of issues around labour compliance for some time... the operation that MBIE have announced took place in the 2016 harvest so we've been working proactively on this issue for some time.

"The level of non-compliance is perhaps surprising, but it does mean that the work we are doing is justified... we'll be looking for improvement across the industry."

Ms Johnson said in the past 12 months the industry had been driving programmes to improve employment in the kiwifruit sector.

"It's been an ongoing issue for horticulture, it reflects probably the demand we have for labour and the fact that we're searching high and low to bring people in to help us particularly in the seasonal scenario."

The responsibility lies with the employer, but the industry also has its role to play, Ms Johnson said.

"As an industry we take it very seriously; right from us who represent the growers, right through to Zespri who are marketing the fruit... it's a critical issue for us and something we're really focussed on."

Ms Johnson said from next season all orchard contractors and growers will be assessed as part of a new programme to monitor compliance of employment law and worker welfare.

She said if there was an audit done this year, it would be a much better result because the profile of employment problems has been raised.

"We've been working hard, particularly with our growers to help them understand how they can have some impact when they not directly employing people but are utilising contractors."