Hostels risk casual-labour fines
Backpacker hostels face big fines if they continue the long tradition of casually offering travellers free beds in exchange for unpaid labour.
Some industry stalwarts say travellers can’t be bothered with the paperwork now required to legally work for accommodation, and they worry it will destroy hostel culture.
But the Labour Inspectorate is preparing to get heavy with those who do flout the law and is monitoring job advertisements on backpacker and work exchange websites.
Last year the inspectorate handed out infringement notices carrying $5000 and $10,000 fines to some backpacker lodges that were following the-then common practice of allowing guests to stay for free in return for cleaning or other work.
Those notices were rescinded after intervention by a national backpacker organisation, and lodges got a grace period to get their businesses in order.
That period is now well and truly over and inspectorate national manager Stu Lumsden said a number of the businesses given warnings about use of volunteers had replaced them with fulltime employees.
Inspectors were now revisiting hostels to check they were toeing the line, ‘‘but I believe that when we go back, we will still find this occurring’’.
‘‘These practices put workers out of pocket, they undermine others in the industry who do meet all their obligations, and remove a potential employment opportunity from the market.’’
Lumsden said an Employment Relations Authority ruling against Robinwood Farm on the outskirts of Christchurch farm for its exploitation of young travellers labouring in firewood and gardening businesses was ‘‘the first cab off the rank’’.
‘‘Obviously the reason we jumped on this one was because of the exploitation aspect of those overseas people, and the possible damage that could do to our reputation.’’
Phil Leslie manages the 300-bed All Stars Inn backpacker lodge in Christchurch and heads a group representing city hostels.
He said travellers were resistant to the hassle of signing an employment contract, and the need for a tax number and a bank account.
‘‘They’re so used to coming in and saying ‘hey, here I am’ and we’d throw them in a bed, and away we’d go.
‘‘Now they have to be regarded as a part-time employee. Some just travel around with credit cards, and don’t have local bank accounts.
‘‘We used to have up to 10 people working for accommodation; at the moment we have four.’’
Christchurch backpacker owner Eric Foley, who heads the BBH network of 160 New Zealand hostels, said the new bureaucracy would kill the sector’s special culture.
The danger was that backpackers wanting to make use of casual bed-for-labour deals would decide to spend less time in New Zealand, or choose to visit countries that allowed the practice.
‘‘To describe it as exploitation is an exaggeration. These are intelligent, mobile people and if it doesn’t suit them, they just move on. There will always be people with a sense of adventure who want to do this.’’