Where’s line between exchange and exploitation?

An organic farm has been found to have exploited thousands of travellers:

An organic farm near Christchurch was ruled to have breached the rights of workers it said were volunteers by the Employment Relations Authority (ERA), following an Inspectorate investigation.

While no records were kept on site at Robinwood Farms Limited, the sole director and shareholder Julia Osselton said that she had over a thousand people travel through her business every year.

“Rather than enjoying a genuine volunteer experience, these people were exploited as free labour for the profit of Ms Osselton’s businesses,” says Labour Inspectorate national manager Stu Lumsden.

“While Ms Osselton claimed that these workers were ‘WWOOFers’ engaged in a cultural and skill based exchange, and not employees, our investigation showed this was clearly not the case.

“It is not acceptable for businesses to attempt to evade their obligations by calling their workers volunteers and simply rewarding them with a bed and some food.

In theory there might be a line between an exchange and exploitation, but it would be difficult to draw it in practice.

If people are working they must be paid at least a minimum wage and if they’re getting accommodation and food, that is probably liable for fringe benefit tax.

“This practice is unfair to businesses that do follow the law and pay their employees, and takes advantage of the good nature of travellers who may not know their employment rights.”

Evidence uncovered on the farm in Tai Tapu showed the so-called ‘volunteers’ were working up to 40 hours per week, often as labour hired out to garden or cut firewood for Ms Osselton’s profit.

They were paid $120 per week in addition to food and accommodation, regardless of hours worked or what work they performed, with a visitors book on site showing many to be from overseas.

This account of the businesses was supported in witness accounts from a New Zealand woman and a Chinese man who both had worked for Robinwood Farms between November and December 2015.

Both said Ms Osselton did not supply them with employment agreements, minimum wage or annual leave for their work. The ERA ruled they were each owed over $2600 in arrears.

A witness statement from another worker provided to the ERA recalled ‘inhumane’ living conditions, where they slept in a small storage room under the stairs without proper ventilation or a heater.

The Inspectorate was also told that food was routinely collected from waste bins at supermarkets before being fed to workers at Robinwood Farms along with spoilt meat.

The ERA already ruled against one of Ms Osslelton’s businesses for her use of volunteers, with more than $20,000 paid to a Spanish man employed by Karamea Holiday Homes Limited.

While penalties to be paid by Robinwood Farms for the breaches are still being discussed, the company could be liable for up to $20,000 per employee per breach.

“Wherever a worker is being rewarded in a business at whatever level, the Labour Inspectorate’s starting position is that these people are employees and minimum employment standards apply.”

Anyone concerned about their employment situation, or the situation of someone they know, should call 0800 20 90 20 where they can report their concerns in a safe environment.

This clears up any doubts about whether WWOOFers are paid workers of not.

If they’re being rewarded for their work in any way they are employees and therefore covered by employment law which requires the payment of minimum wages and adherence to other conditions designed to prevent exploitation.

2 Responses to Where’s line between exchange and exploitation?

  1. Mr E says:

    Scrutiny in this area of employment is long overdue.

    It is unsurprising to me that this type of thing has been going on.

    Many view work experience given as some form of payment to woofers. I do not and neither does our law.

    The maximum board that can be given is $150/week before it needs to be declared to IRD for tax purposes.

    At today’s minimum salary that is less than 10 hours. How many woofer employers pay this tax or how many do less than 10hours?

    The question doesn’t really need to be asked. I think there is likely wide spread flaunting of the law.

    I hope the scutiny of this sector continues.

    We need to move the standards delivered to our visiting labour force up.

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