Army steps in to support growers
In Northland the Salvation Army is playing an important and growing role in meeting horticultural labour needs.
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.”
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