Help at hand for on-farm pay, conditions issues

Help is available for dairy workers and employers caught in on-farm problems around pay, conditions, health and safety.

Fairfax Media has been reporting complaints of bullying, low pay and long hours by workers on dairy farms in recent weeks.

When they have appeared on this website, comments have been left of similar experiences. Others have rung but have asked not to have their stories published for fear of a backlash.

Some have criticised DairyNZ for lack of help, but the organisation says that while it offers courses to assist employees and employers to know their rights and to implement best-practice in their dealings with each other, illegal activity is beyond its remit.

This is where the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment's Labour Inspectorate comes in.

MBIE Waikato manager Kris Metcalf said anyone who had concerns could ring the ministry on 0800 20 90 20.

He said labour inspectors were visiting dairy farms in Taranaki, Waikato and Hawke's Bay after a survey indicated one-third of all dairy farm workers in Southland could be underpaid.

The visits were part of a long- term operation to identify breaches of employment law, with particular focus on the common practice of seasonal averaging and the failure to keep accurate time and wage records.

When the department looked at the employees' original employment agreements, it found the employers - one farm owner and two sharemilkers - had each underpaid their employees, he said.

Dairy farm employees must be paid at least the minimum wage of $13.75 an hour for the total hours they work in a week.

"If they work 60 hours a week, they need to be paid at 60 hours at the minimum wage," Mr Metcalf said. "It doesn't mean you can't employ people on a low salary - $30,000-$38,000 - but you can't let their hourly rate slip below the minimum. You can't offset the dry season against the calving season."

Starting from March, the inspectors would also be looking at the possible exploitation of migrant workers on dairy farms.

DairyNZ strategy and investment leader for people and business Mark Paine pointed to Quick Start and People Smart resources on the organisation's website.

Quick Start covers the introduction of a new employee with advice of job description, recruitment and induction programme and making sure good communication and support is available.

People Smart is designed for specific roles on the farm, covering the expectations both parties have of each other and puts in place performance requirements.

DairyNZ was also upskilling its advisers on how to give the best advice on these matters. "There is a market shortage of advisers in this space, for businesses that have grown like Topsy and found themselves in what is not common territory for them."

The organisation was also working with Lincoln University in research into what caused stress on dairy farms at different times of the year with the aim of developing better support systems around the employment relationship. It was also looking at the internationally developed Lean Management technique, which offers a systematic approach to setting up the workplace.

Primary ITO said it offered two qualifications that could help. The National Certificate in Rural Staff Management and the Human Resource Module of the National Diploma in Agribusiness were designed to help farmers ensure they had sound HR management procedures.

Southland manager Andrew Shepherd said farmers were "generally pretty good" when dealing with staff. "However, HR practices can sometimes play second fiddle to the day-to-day running of their business.

"We're finding that farmers are starting to realise that in order to attract and retain good staff they not only need to be aware of their responsibilities as employers, but also have sound processes in place to manage staff performance and develop high performing teams."

Waikato Federated Farmers president James Houghton said the MBIE visits started a conversation that will "hopefully better clarify what is required of employers".

Federated Farmers is advising farmers to make sure sure their staff are filling in time sheets and to ensure their hourly rate does not fall beneath the minimum wage.

"On farms where seasonal averaging is practised there needs to be detailed wage/time records so that people can determine if they are being paid fairly in accordance with the employment agreement," policy adviser Kara Lok said. "Situations can quickly get out of line with what was originally agreed."

Federated Farmers has fixed term and permanent employment agreements available to help farmers meet requirements.

Community Law, which has more than 140 offices around New Zealand, also provides advice and help.

Straight Furrow