Dairy farmers throughout New Zealand have been put on notice to ensure they are complying with minimum employment rights.
After investigating Southland dairy farms in August, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's labour inspectorate will extend its "visits".
The operation would roll out in the Waikato, Hawke's Bay and Taranaki in 2014, focusing on the practice of seasonal averaging and migrant exploitation, and gathering information on "the dynamic of farming at the moment", Labour inspectorate central region manager Kris Metcalf said.
The visits will follow an Employment Relations Authority (ERA) determination that found seasonal averaging – when employers average wages over the season – was likely to breach the Minimum Wage Act, he said.
"Employees should receive the minimum wage for the hours they work in a week. If they do 18-hour days in calving season they should be paid for that week."
The ministry would work with Immigration to identify farms employing migrant workers, and check those workers were being treated fairly.
Each farm would receive an introductory visit, and a time would be made for the actual inspection during which employers and employees would be present, Metcalf said.
Federated Farmers dairy chairman Willy Leferink said salary averaging was the most practical and beneficial way to pay staff as farming is a "seasonal occupation" with "peaks and troughs of income".
"[Salary averaging] smooths [employees'] income so they have a dependable income when the work is low.
"Federated Farmers does not condone employers underpaying their staff and employers need to monitor their salary averaging to make sure they are paying correctly."
Federated Farmers were about best practice and did not condone "migrant exploitation in any shape or form". For that reason it had developed heavily subsidised employment contracts, Leferink said.
Federated Farmers' remuneration report showed dairy workers earned above the minimum wage with an average salary of between $46,246 or $49,159 (including total package value), he said.
Metcalf said appropriate enforcement action would be taken should any breaches of employment law be identified, with non-compliance attracting fines of up to $10,000 for an individual and $20,000 for a company.
"New Zealand's reputation as a fair place to work is important to maintain," he said.
Any dairy farm staff who were being treated illegally, or who knew of others in this situation, could call 0800 20 90 20 where "concerns will be handled in a safe environment".
A Stratford farmer was this year ordered to pay his worker more than $6000 in backpay, after he was found to have been paid below the minimum wage when his pay was averaged across seasons.
The ERA said salary payment "cannot be used as a mechanism to avoid the rates set out in a Minimum Wage Order".