On-farm job law crackdown
Nearly three out of four dairy farmers have been caught breaking basic employment laws in a government crackdown.
Farmers have been told to ‘‘lift their game’’ after Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s (MBIE) labour inspectorate visited 44 farms, 31 of which were found to be in breach of minimum employment rights.
In one case a farmer was ordered to pay $6000 in arrears to an employee for breaching the Minimum Wage Act, the ministry said.
Several cases remained open with the possibility of more serious enforcement action pending.
MBIE said in November it would be visiting dairy farms throughout New Zealand from December 2013 to April 2014 to check compliance with minimum employment rights.
The visits were part of a national dairy strategy with a focus on the seasonal averaging of salaries and failure to keep accurate time and wage records.
Federated Farmers dairy chairman Willy Leferink said there was a lot of paperwork involved in employing labour but farmers needed to stay on top of it.
‘‘Farmers are poor keepers of paperwork,’’ he said.
‘‘Some didn’t have contracts and that sort of stuff. We don’t live in the 80s any more.’’
In relation to seasonal averaging a lot of farmers were operating out of habit but that was no excuse for breaking the law, he said.
‘‘Employment is serious business so you have to treat it seriously,’’ Leferink said.
For $60 farmers who were Federated Farmers members could get a package with all the necessary employment documentation and information, he said.
There was a grey area about how farmers should calculate minimum wages if housing was included in an employment contract – and nearly all New Zealand dairy farmers would supply housing for workers.
‘‘It’s a bit confusing because the ministry itself probably doesn’t know where things are at.’’
MBIE central region manager Kris Metcalf said the ministry had taken enforcement action in response to the breaches, resulting in 22 enforceable undertakings and one improvement notice being issued in the crackdown.
An enforceable undertaking is a commitment by an employer to address a failure to comply with the law.
The exercise involved 13 labour inspectors.
Metcalf said the next phase would focus on farms employing migrant workers.
‘‘Farmers need to lift their game in complying with minimum employment rights and can expect a strong enforcement response from the next phase,’’ Metcalf said.
Employers could be fined up to $10,000 for an individual and up to $20,000 for a company for failing to comply with employment laws.
Dundas Street Employment Lawyers partner Susan HornsbyGeluk said if employers failed to complete the appropriate paper work, they could be liable for personal grievances on the basis of unjustified dismissal when a contract was terminated.
‘‘If they engage people on the basis of a handshake, if it goes to grief they’re going to be liable under the employment relations act,’’ she said.
Hornsby-Geluk said the findings were not surprising because a lot of farm workers were young and inexperienced in the area of employment rights and entitlements.
Smaller employers often did not have the same level of rigour around employment compliance, she said.