“A great host and a great boss,” reads the hand-written note of gratitude from Vlad – a Ukrainian on a New Zealand kiwifruit picking experience.
“You created an awesome place for people to work and live together. Thanks for the experience.”
This is just one of a dozen similar heartfelt messages in a card of appreciation from backpacking pickers to Te Puke kiwifruit contractors Di and Bryan Leach. More significantly, it’s a vote of approval for an industry which has come under fire for allegedly exploiting its workers.
“I appreciate everything you have done for us,” says Yannik from Germany. “You have been such lovely employers,” adds Laura from Canada, while Heiko and Doreen say: “We’ll never forget”.
Di Leach shared these personal endorsements in response to The Weekend Sun story which was an indictment of the way some labour teams have been treated by the kiwifruit industry.
Lousy pay rates, seasonality and inconsistent hours, weather dependency, poor communication and greedy employers were some of the grievances put forward by disgruntled workers.
“Kiwifruit picking – why on earth would you?” said one veteran picker and pruner. “Don’t be tricked into joining the circus or you’ll get trapped in a life of poverty and broken promises. You have been warned.”
But there was no warning required about Di Leach’s operation, who says her team is valued. “We need staff as much as they need income,” says Di. “Like anything in life, you get what you give.”
And as one harvest finishes, the industry looks to the next. “We need a positive reputation to attract more labour next season,” says Di, because they were short of 1200 workers to pull in this season’s bumper crop. “Please consider the many good guys out there,” Di asks The Weekend Sun.
She hoped the negative story on the kiwifruit industry, and especially its bad employers, would help improve working conditions across the industry. It was a negative story, but not one without merit. Even the New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Inc – the voice of the growers – acknowledged the problems.
“We’re aware some of the employers in the industry haven’t been respecting their employees as much as they should be,” NZKGI’s Nikki Johnson told The Weekend Sun.
To fix it, NZKGI has this year introduced a compulsory compliance programme which requires all labour contractors in the kiwifruit industry to be registered and audited for compliance.
But by far the majority of online responses to The Weekend Sun story was sympathetic to Mike Pratt – the veteran kiwifruit worker leading the charge for pickers and pruners.
One commenter said from his contact with all of the “visa people”, the international backpacking labour force could afford to be selective about the work they took because of the availability of jobs.
“Blueberries, cherries and apples pay more,” he said. “We don’t want to do kiwifruit. It’s too hard for too little pay.” He said they come and work in the kiwifruit orchards hoping to party the night away. “But no, they sleep exhausted.”
“We work harder for less these days,” said Lance. “That’s what happens when you don’t have a union.”
A post from Alison says: “I can’t believe some places insist you lodge in their specified accommodation if you want a job with them. Those poor workers must put almost all of their hard-earned cash back into the employers’ pockets. An awful con.”
On wages, Murray says: “I was getting $18 an hour to pick kiwifruit in the 80s. Things seem to be going backwards.” And employee loyalty begins with employer loyalty, suggests Alison. “(You would) be amazed how much fruit would be picked if employees were paid properly or at least received alternative perks like free accommodation, free transport or tax breaks,” she says.
Perks have worked for Peter John, a Te Puke contractor of 15 years. “I am delighted to say that is why my staff turnover is very low, and why pickers say they’ll come back and work for me next year. I look after them.”
And if the teams have to travel out of town to Te Puke or Anthenree? “I give them petrol vouchers for heaven’s sake. And I pay well.”
The hourly rate for one of his teams averaged out about $29, another $27 and the third team $23. That’s for the hours they worked, and according to one source, those hours have averaged 30 per week in recent years.
“If I said they would start picking at 9am and didn’t start picking until 10.30am, I would pay them for that time at the minimum wage. So they got paid for sitting round and doing nothing.”
So as NZKGI’s Nikki Johnson suggested, while they try to weed out the bad employers, there are many, many good people in the industry who look after their workers. Her advice to pickers is “don’t work for one that doesn’t”.
Before The Weekend Sun story, a Bay of Plenty post-harvest company, Trevelyan’s Pack and Cool, was hitting back at “claims levelled against the wider kiwifruit industry” that seasonal workers were being exploited.
The company released “an in-depth look at our economic, social and environmental performance in 2017” which it claimed “showed how the company cared for its employees, communities and environment while still generating great returns for growers.”
Trevelyan’s annual staff satisfaction survey showed 98 per cent of staff – permanent rather than seasonal – reported either medium or high job satisfaction, a trend steadily rising over four years.
But it seems that’s not the experience for many seasonal pickers in the kiwifruit industry. Wayne commented to The Weekend Sun that he knew a lot of people who started picking jobs in kiwifruit “but will never do it again. (There’s a) lack of pay and disorganised contractors. Some pickers finished the season, most did not.”