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Farm penalised $45k for exploiting ‘volunteer’ workers

A farm near Christchurch has been penalised more than $45,000 by the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) for exploiting volunteer workers, following a Labour Inspectorate investigation.

Robinwood Farms Limited, whose sole director and shareholder is Julia Osselton, was found to have breached the rights of workers who she claimed were ‘volunteers’, rather than employees, in a bid to avoid meeting her obligations under New Zealand law.

“The ERA agreed with the Inspectorate this was a clear and unequivocal case of worker exploitation which the employer attempted to hide under the guise of providing a ‘WWOOFing’ experience,” says Labour Inspectorate regional manager David Milne.

“Due to the poor nature of the records kept, it will be difficult to ever know the true level of exploitation which occurred on the farm – though Ms Osselton herself suggested she had over a thousand people travel through her business every year.”

The ERA imposed a $45,900 penalty on Robinwood Farms to be shared between the Crown, and the two workers who had been witnesses in the case taken by the Inspectorate, to set a strong deterrent for any other businesses engaging in what it called an ‘intolerable situation’.

This was the second such award made by the ERA against one of Ms Osselton’s businesses for her use of volunteers, with more than $20,000 paid to a Spanish worker employed by Karamea Holiday Homes Limited, as well as a $5000 penalty, following a determination last year.

“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, including being paid at least the minimum wage for every hour worked,” says Mr Milne.

“Not only does exploitation take advantage of workers, it undermines businesses which do meet their obligations, and endangers the reputation of New Zealand as a fair place to live, work, and do business.

“Any other businesses making use of volunteer workers should take note of this case. As both the Inspectorate and the ERA have made clear – workers have a fundamental right to be paid for all the work that they do.”

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.