Abusive employers all too common in NZ dairy farming sector

LYN WEBSTER
Last updated 10:35 01/06/2012
dairy strap
BEN CURRAN/Fairfax NZ
"I say, enter the dairy industry at your own risk." - Lyn Webster.

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Lyn Webster

Farming profits not for get-rich-quick investors Day off? Yeah right Sunny skies, growing grass makes for happy farmer Canine helper worth his weight New mother a force to be reckoned with Hard slog on a bog Many trials and rewards of going it alone So much for a cruisy day off Helicopter harassment a farmer's burden Calling the shots is liberating

OPINION: The New Zealand media rarely feature stories about bad employers in the dairy sector, yet horror stories about poor treatment of farm employees are rife.

Investing in the dairy industry by buying cows and becoming a 50/50 sharemilker – a contractor rather than an employee – does not seem to shield wannabe dairy farmers from such abuse.

Because I have recently gone public with my own experiences of abuse of trust on the farm, it has attracted some interesting feedback from ex-sharemilkers who obviously still bear the scars, emotional and financial, from being ripped off by unscrupulous farm owners.

I am the first to admit there are two sides to every story, but the feedback I have heard certainly paints a grim picture of dairy industry employment relations. One couple I spoke with are still paying off the debt incurred when a variable order deal came to a sticky end many years ago. Now that person rents in town, drip-feeding a huge farm debt off scanty townie wages, living my worst nightmare.

But when the proverbial hits the fan a herd owner might be forced to sell up on a buyer's market, taking huge losses on stock sales and, let's face it, the pile of rusting machinery that graces a small-time sharemilker's equipment shed is hardly a valuable asset in terms of resale value.

Obviously I am sulking because I have had a bad run myself lately with a contract being whipped out from underneath me at a time when I was financially and emotionally unprepared. I hope my pending move to Kaitaia serves to motivate me out of this cesspit of self pity that I am wallowing in. But while I am here let me tell you something that if I was still trying to find a sharemilking job, I would have been too scared to say.

A recent article reported John Fegan (who is involved with dairy industry recruitment) saying that a "small number of dairy farm employers had not learnt common courtesy or how to treat people properly". He estimated the number of "ratbags" at 2 per cent of dairy farm employers.

In 10 years' dairy farming I have had six employers. I can remember specific incidences where every one of them verbally abused me – 100 per cent. I have walked away from these abuses every time without returning the favour. I recognise dealing with people can be frustrating, communication gaps can occur and in dairy farming it's common to get tired and stressed out but I am sometimes tired and stressed out too. My solution has been to move on and find another job, always hoping I am not jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

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Here's a brief summary. Screamed at and shoulder-charged when drafting cows and calves. Threatened with a punch in the face because I suggested CIDRs might be worth a try. Verbally abused until I cried when I turned a tap the wrong way. Sworn at and put down for about an hour because I had appeared on Country Calendar. Screamed at by two men in unison about the management of an effluent system that was held together by rotten bungy cords (not my doing). Another memorable interlude was one time I asked my boss how many silage bales to feed out – his reply: "show us your tits!"

I say, enter the dairy industry at your own risk.

- Waikato

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