Army steps in to sup­port growers

In North­land the Sal­va­tion Army is play­ing an im­por­tant and grow­ing role in meet­ing hor­ti­cul­tural labour needs.

The Orchardist - - Labour - By Wendy Lau­ren­son

Michelle Thompson saw a need a sup­port peo­ple who noone else would sup­port, and has con­nected that with a need for labour in local hor­ti­cul­ture.

She’s the Em­ploy­ment Nav­i­ga­tor for the Ed­u­ca­tion and Em­ploy­ment branch of Sal­va­tion Army in Whangarei and is watch­ing her un­likely ini­tia­tive flour­ish.

“We work with Cor­rec­tions to pro­vide hor­ti­cul­ture em­ploy­ment for ex-pris­on­ers who are now on pro­ba­tion – and it’s a win-win,” she said.

“The ex-pris­on­ers are keen to work. They get to start over and build up an em­ploy­ment record, and the growers and pack­houses get much needed work­ers.

“But it’s taken two years to nail it. We did a pi­lot scheme first and started with sea­sonal work in ku­mara, and it’s been so suc­cess­ful that we now have lots of the guys in full­time work. We’ve hit a few bumps but that’s all part of the learn­ing. We now run five vans ev­ery day to hor­ti­cul­ture prop­er­ties or pack­houses in the mid­north and so far we’re work­ing with ku­mara, av­o­ca­dos, rasp­ber­ries, macadamias, and ki­wifruit. We’re keen to be able to pro­vide work and work­ers through the whole year so we’re ex­pand­ing all the time.” The project be­gan with Old Red, a faith­ful old diesel Sal­va­tion Army van that had done over 300,000 kilo­me­tres, was cheap to run, and had no prob­lems get­ting dirty on the ku­mara fields around Dar­gav­ille.

“We knew growers had trou­ble get­ting sea­sonal work­ers and we had peo­ple keen to work, so we got a driver for Old Red and the van left from our Whangarei base each morn­ing,” she said.

“It meant a very early start and sev­eral pick-up stops on the way to work, plus the work is highly weather de­pen­dent and un­pre­dictable from place to place, so we de­cided to re­fine the process.”

Michelle leased a newer van, stepped up trust lev­els and se­lected one of the guys on pro­ba­tion to drive and take charge of the van.

“It’s eas­ier if one of the work­ers man­ages the van,” she said.

“They’re re­spon­si­ble for its fuel, oil and wa­ter and we trust some of them with a fuel card. The guys build up a van whanau and pull each other into line. We now have two vans based in Kaikohe and three in Whangarei that the guys use to get them­selves to work. My job is to set clear bound­aries and keep watch. We’ve only had two in­ci­dents in two years.”

For 20 years Michelle man­aged teams within large cor­po­rate banks.

“And frankly man­ag­ing a van load of 10 ex-crim­i­nals is eas­ier than man­ag­ing 22 of­fice work­ers,” she said.

“I also come from I back­ground where I un­der­stand th­ese peo­ple.”

She needs to. The peo­ple Cor­rec­tions refers to Michelle have been paroled to a lo­ca­tion where they’re from, where their fam­ily lives or where ac­com­mo­da­tion can be found.

“They are in re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­grammes, some are on elec­tronic mon­i­tor­ing and most need to re­port weekly to their pro­ba­tion of­fi­cer,” she said.

“They have no work his­tory and usu­ally not a lot of so­cial skills. My job is to get them work ready, get their CV to­gether and even to clothe some of them. We also some­times give them a box of food and a fry­ing pan and teach them how to cook.

“We find sea­sonal work is the path for them to get a ref­er­ence and if they prove re­li­able we help them go for their fork­lift and car li­cences through our driv­ing school.

“I get them sorted with a bank ac­count and IRD re­quire­ments and we of­fer them bud­get­ing ad­vice. We want them to be in­de­pen­dent and our aim is to get them into full­time sus­tain­able em­ploy­ment.”

Orange­wood in Kerik­eri is one of the hor­ti­cul­ture com­pa­nies work­ing with Michelle and her teams. Michelle Mora, Orange­wood’s hu­man re­sources rep­re­sen­ta­tive and re­cep­tion­ist, said the ar­range­ment works well for them.

“This year we’ve had a higher labour de­mand than usual be­cause we’ve just added av­o­ca­dos to our pack­ing sched­ule,” she said.

“Michelle ap­proached us about some work­ers and we were keen to give it a go. It’s not a big part of our staff but a Sal­va­tion Army van comes over from Kaikohe with their guys and they’re happy to bring some other lo­cals on board too if there’s room.”

Michelle said be­ing able to rely on the van turn­ing up with local peo­ple want­ing to work is a real ad­van­tage for Orange­wood. “Trans­port can be such an is­sue for local peo­ple, so to have it han­dled is great for us. Michelle is in touch with us a lot to see how we’re go­ing. We com­mit to of­fer 40 hours work a week Mon­day to Fri­day with the op­tion, if they’re rained off, of mak­ing time up in the week­ends.We pay a con­tract rate for pick­ing, so there’s a chance to make some good money, then we pay an hourly rate for other sea­sons.

“As with any­one, some of the Sal­va­tion Army starters find this work isn’t for them, but we’ve got three who were with us this pick­ing sea­son who have now gone on to win­ter prun­ing. We have con­tract teams out on the or­chards that we man­age for growers, so if some­one’s keen they can progress to su­per­vi­sor or to qual­ity con­trol in the pack­house. If we see po­ten­tial in some­one we’ll also sup­port their study in a hor­ti­cul­ture course through Pri­mary ITO.”

A dis­ad­van­tage of em­ploy­ing the peo­ple un­der pro­ba­tion is that their weekly re­port­ing to their pa­role of­fi­cer is dis­rup­tive to their work sched­ule.

“This has to be dur­ing the week so it can be tricky but we’re look­ing at ways to sort it,” Michelle Mora said.

“Michelle and her team are great to deal with and they ad­dress any prob­lems that arise.”

To keep things run­ning smoothly Michelle Thompson said she and her Sal­va­tion Army team-mate, Sandy Howes, go out to each prop­erty they’re in­volved with once a month and take out a huge lunch for ev­ery­one to sit down and share.

“We plan it in ad­vance and it keeps us all in touch,” she said.

“I see my guys on a reg­u­lar ba­sis and they tell me any­thing that’s bug­ging them.”

She loves her work.

“The re­ward is far more than the oc­ca­sional dis­ap­point­ment we meet,” she said.

“With the bond­ing be­tween the work­ers in the vans they keep each other hon­est and they know that if they breach their pro­ba­tion terms, they’re back in­side. I keep an eye on them here for six months, then some choose to stay and oth­ers move on to cre­ate their new life. There’s an adrenaline buzz to see some­one go off to a job.

“Ex-crim­i­nals are great net­work­ers so they’re telling oth­ers who are keen to work. They’ll also tell on each other if some­one’s out of line. In the two years of do­ing this the de­mand has grown both from the hor­ti­cul­ture in­dus­try need­ing work­ers and from our ex-crims want­ing to work. I’ll put more vans on the road if I need to.”

The vans do run at a loss.

“But it’s the process of em­ploy­ment that we’re af­ter – and that is work­ing.”

“If we see po­ten­tial in some­one we’ll also sup­port their study in a hor­ti­cul­ture course through Pri­mary ITO.”

North­ern Ad­vo­cate

Sandy Howes and Michelle Thompson in front of one of the or­chard work­ersʼ vans. Photo by John Stone

Michelle Thompson (cen­tre) at a work­ersʼ meet­ing. Photo cour­tesy of Sal­va­tion Army

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