Bullied farmers take on debt to avoid 'mongrels'

JON MORGAN
Last updated 10:56 09/12/2013

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A dairy farming couple who have gone into debt "up to our eyeballs" to buy their own farm after an experience with "mongrel" owner as sharemilkers want support available for vulnerable farm workers.

PERKS PLIGHT

Ashburton dairy farmer Simon Barber says the practice of providing houses for staff and charging them a low rental is under threat.

This is because Inland Revenue has taken a strict line with migrant workers' salary packages.

"Immigration NZ will not view the accommodation and perks as part of the salary package, yet IRD require us to tax employees on it. Immigration only looks at the cash portion.

"Within our business we are considering paying a higher salary and then making our staff rent houses under a conventional tenancy agreement instead of just a ‘perk of the job'. This will enable us to charge full market value for perks [accommodation, milk, meat, internet, electricity etc] which will in turn create more admin work for us and push our costs even higher!"

The North Island farmers say their bad experiences are not unique.

"There's a bigger percentage that would be bad employers than there are good in the dairy industry," she said.

"I go to farming functions and everyone's moaning about their workers but they don't stop to think about their own contribution."

Most new entrants were naive teenagers who some employers took advantage of, she said.

"I get a lot of calls from these kids who have to put up with bullying. What are they going to do? They want to get another job but the only person who can give them a reference is their employer.

"They are dragged into meetings to be told what they've done wrong. They don't know their legal rights." She would like to see a service available for people to go to for advice, with an 0800 helpline, and to supply support people for meetings.

Key advice to both sides would be to be aware of how close their hours of work were taking them to a minimum-wage breach.

"Pay of $34,000 sounds great but when you break it down to the hours they do then they're getting pretty close to the minimum wage. And there has to be some compensation other than the pay packet for working them like a dog."

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No one was exempt from being mistreated or from doing the mistreating, she said.

As 50-50 sharemilkers she and her husband had been "severely bullied" by the owners.

"They were bastards. They fired us with a three-line letter effective immediately just four weeks before the end of the first season of a three-year contract. It was illegal but they tried it on."

The bullying escalated when the couple refused to leave.

"They tried to put a stop on our vets coming to the farm; they even used to ring up people we had accounts with to see if we'd paid our bills."

The owners also did "picky" house inspections, opening pantry, linen, bathroom and bedroom cupboards.

The couple found a conciliator to arbitrate the dispute. "He probably saved me from jail from losing my temper," she said. They finally agreed to end the contract after two years.

"There's some great guys out there but the ones that are terrible are really terrible. It's embarrassing for an industry that is proud of being a world leader."

As an employer she tried to be firm but fair.

She and her husband made sure their workers worked no longer than 12 days without a day off and ensured they have every second weekend off. Sick days were not counted.

"The basic question you should ask as an employer is: Would you want it done to your son and daughter?"

However, other farmers have a different view.

Simon Barber, of Ashburton, said he was one of many large-scale contract/sharemilkers who offered a different roster to the 12-on 2-off or 18-on 3-off complained of recently.

"We offer a 7/2-7/2-7/3-style roster and many others offer 6/2 or 8/2," he said.

"The dairy industry is not all about ripping workers off, making huge profits and destroying the environment like most mainstream media would have us believe."

And Daniel O'Toole, a dairy worker at Otorohanga, said he had had some bad bosses in his 14-year career "but you leave and find a better job. People need to harden up."

He said the many perks of the job helped to make up for the long hours. He and his family received cheap $100-a-week rent, the meat from a free cattlebeast each year and free milk.

"Best of all, I come home for breakfast and lunch and I get to spend more time with my family."

But the North Island farmers said the treatment of staff on farms needed to be addressed "continually, until the industry starts to get a better reputation".

"Dairying is losing some great young guys and girls who start out passionate and excited about the prospect of working their way up the industry ladder, but end up having the shit kicked out of them by the people they work for.

"It's just not right, and what's more there is a feeling among these young people that they just have to suck it up. A large percentage feel powerless to be heard to stop the bad treatment."

- Straight Furrow

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