Sharemilkers not bad people just bad bosses

Immigration adviser Lyn Sparks is blaming a rise in corporate-owned dairy farms for an increase in workers' complaints about poor working conditions.

The Christchurch-based adviser says the biggest offenders are some corporate-owned farms run by sharemilkers.

However, he believes there are more good employers than bad in dairying.

"The bad ones are not bad people," he says. "They just don't know how to manage."

But a contract milker says there are just as many bad employees in dairying as bad employers.

The woman, who farms in the North Island and does not want to be identified, says she and her husband are struggling to get rid of a worker who is lazy and abusive.

"He treats me terribly," she said. "I ask him to do something, and I get verbal abuse - I'm an 'old effing c'.

"It's impacting on our marriage. My husband is taking it out on me. I can't sleep, I can't eat. I've really gone down."

The employee was paid $50,000 with a free house and had a three-day weekend off every three weeks. But he was often late for work and could not be trusted.

He had also failed to tell them of a pending court appearance on a charge of selling cannabis, for which he received six months home detention.

His wife had been contracted for relief milking and calving but refused to milk.

"You might say why not sack him, but with all the rigmarole with verbal warnings and written warnings it's damn near impossible. Now he has asked for mediation, which is fine by us because now he will be found out."

Mr Sparks said that for many, sharemilking was no longer a pathway to ownership. "It is just a job for 3-4-5-6 years and then they're gone. While there they want to make as much money as possible and to do that they run their staff numbers short."

He estimated that 75 per cent of dairy farm workers in the South Island were foreigners.

He had been bringing in workers for 26 years and had noticed an increase in recent years, with most coming from the Philippines.

"If you go onto farms you will see very few white faces. The Filipinos are coming here because the offer is more attractive than the alternative, which is to work in Saudi Arabia or Japan.

"When they see 50 hours a week it looks good, but suddenly they are working 70 hours. They don't know who to complain to and are worried that if they do they will have to go home. It is sold to them on the basis that they will get residency, but that won't happen unless they get a manager's job, and that will take 10 years."

The long hours - cups on at 3.30am and finishing up at 6pm - increases the risk of accidents, Mr Sparks said. "The only way to get them to change is for the Labour Service to do them on health and safety grounds."

He said a little bit of kindness toward workers would go a long way. "The farmers make a lot of money in a good season but very few think of sharing it with their staff in the form of bonuses."

Straight Furrow