28 May 2014

CORRESPONDENT

10:46 am on 28 May 2014

Are dairy farmers bad employers? That question has been swirling around the industry lately, following a survey by labour inspectors that found most of the dairy farms they checked were breaking the employment laws.

The breaches mainly related to paper work - not keeping accurate records of time worked and wages paid.

But the Labour Inspectorate has taken follow-up enforcement action on more than 20 of the non-compliance cases, including one instance where a farmer had to pay an employee $6000 in wage arrears for not meeting the minimum wage.

That's a lot more serious than poor record keeping.

The response from the dairy sector has been two-sided.

On the one hand, everyone from Federated Farmers to the industry body, Dairy NZ, has acknowledged that dairy farmers need to lift their game when it comes to complying with the employment laws.

But they've also been lobbying the Government for a change to the wage regulations, so farmers can average out their workers' pay over a fortnight rather than a week, which is what the mimimum wage order currently stipulates.

They say the increased flexibility they are seeking would fit in a lot better with fortnightly farm rosters.

They are also seeking recognition of the fact that farm workers get accommodation and other benefits thrown in as part of their employment package.

farm worker on tractor

Photo: PHOTO NZ

The Council of Trade Unions says many farm workers are already on or near the minimum wage and allowing farmers to average out payments over a fortnight instead of paying on a weekly basis would allow them to demand even longer hours of work, without having to meet the penalties of paying for extra time worked.

But it seems like the dairy industry will get its way on this, because the Business Innovation and Employment Ministry is calling for submissions on a proposal to amend the rules to allow for a fortnightly minimum wage rate.

Dairy farming representatives say one of the reasons for the poor level of farmer compliance is confusion about the labour laws and different interpretations farmers have had from Government agencies.

But the deeper issue behind it all is the difficulty farmers have had in breaking away from their traditional practice of averaging out wage payments over an entire season, to take account of busy and quieter times in the farming year.

That means the exceedingly long hours worked during calving are meant to be compensated with time off later on.

That's always been open to abuse and is one of the reasons why dairy farms haven't had a great reputation among school leavers as a place to work.

A farm consultant we spoke to said a lot of farmers are still thinking in the past, when most dairy farms were smaller family-run units, where staff were expected to work the same hours and conditions as the owners without compensation or complaint.

He points out that increasingly, dairy farms these days are big businesses. A farm owner may be employing a sizeable number of people on several farms and they need qualified managers and staff. A casual approach to wages and conditions won't do, any more.

The entries for the farm manager and trainee contests in the annual dairy industry awards show the highly motivated and skilled people dairy farmers need are out there.

But they are in short supply and are likely to remain so until more farmers have got to grips with what it means to be a good employer in a modern and expanding industry.

There's been one sign however, that farmers are getting the message: Federated Farmers recently reported a rush of orders for its new employment pack, which has just been updated to help farmers meet their obligations as employers.