The investigation that shut down a business over its standard of orchard accommodation – including alleged stained and mouldy mattresses, no insulation and a leaky roof – caused a stir among the kiwifruit industry.
DMS Progrowers chief executive Derek Masters said it became “quite a topic” among himself and other chief executives, and he invited the Bay of Plenty Times to walk through their new $2.5 million site for Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme workers.
“As our kiwifruit industry grows, the labour demand is going to be harder and harder to source,” he said.
“Our RSE workers have come from overseas, they’ve come to work here, but they also need decent accommodation.”
Last year, there were 4000 beds in the region for kiwifruit workers with plans to extend by more than 2500 new beds by 2025.
It was part of “considerable investment” by the industry into accommodation in recent years, New Zealand Kiwifruit Growers Incorporated chief executive Nikki Johnson said.
During the normal season, about 50 per cent of the industry’s workforce were locals, about 17 per cent were through the RSE scheme, and 25 per cent were on Working Holiday Visas.
The RSE programme is an Immigration NZ programme only available to approved employers, monitored by the Labour Inspectorate.
But those on Working Holiday Visas choose their own accommodation and Johnson said the industry had no influence on where they stayed or the standards of the accommodation providers.
“Unfortunately, there have been some instances where accommodation standards have not been met.”
She said councils were responsible for establishing and enforcing accommodation and NZKGI would continue working with local government and employers to encourage good quality accommodation.
She said initiatives could be explored to ensure workers were accommodated safely and within their budgets.
DMS chief executive Derek Masters said the image of the industry that the woolshed provided was in his view “damaging”.
DMS Progrowers had accommodation in Te Puna and Te Puke, each with consent for 120 people. Te Puna can currently sleep 53 people.
It had taken 18 months for the four-block facility to get to this stage. Workers previously stayed at multiple facilities around the region.
The Te Puna facility would cost $2.5 million once complete, and Masters said he was “extremely proud” of what they provided.
Masters said bringing the accommodation to two places would keep the staff together and safe.
Both sites had around-the-clock security cameras and a fulltime pastoral care staff member.
There was also a mental wellness programme and English classes for employees.
The facility was split into four blocks – accommodation; toilet, shower and laundry; and two common rooms and kitchen blocks.
There was consent for the fifth block to be accommodation for seasonal workers.
Men and women had separate toilets, showers and rooms, there was a disability toilet, a laundry room, and a boot-drying room.
Dubbed “the village” by the guests, they were charged $135, which included access to all the facilities, power, WiFi, and leasing one of the company vans.
The plastic material covering the foam mattresses was covered with bedding and the plastic was replaced yearly.
Three metal frame bunk beds were in each insulated room with shelves, lockers, and a panel heater.
The common room was 120sq m equipped with a television, couches, puzzles, heating panels, a fireplace, table tennis and large windows.
The kitchen was spacious and industrial, with metal benches, multiple ovens, microwaves, fridges and freezers.
A large, flat grass area had access to three taps, a power hub, and a fish-scaling bench.
Those who stayed on-site in vans could use the facilities for $25 a week.
Zespri’s head of communications and external relations Michael Fox said the company was investing “heavily” in systems that would identify and take action over any worker exploitation.
This would be alongside government agencies and authorities and includes investigating reports of compliance issues.
“Any mistreatment of workers is completely unacceptable.”
Growers needed to meet Good Agricultural Practice requirements as well as Zespri’s GRASP social practice module, which outlines expectations around worker safety, health, welfare, and fair treatment.
“While the vast majority of employers in the industry are doing the right thing, we’re committed to making sure that ours is an industry that people want to work in.”
Western Bay of Plenty District Council policy, planning and regulatory services group manager Rachael Davie said another kiwifruit accommodation site in the region was being investigated by the compliance officer.
This came about after an inquiry about accommodation at a facility after the woolshed’s exposure.
The council would not say what the claims were or the outcome of the investigation.
Davie said the council responded to complaints and identified non-compliance as part of the regular programmed monitoring inspections.
“There is no work programme that specifically undertakes site to site visits in the district to ‘find’ substandard accommodation.”
NZKGI provides a complaints hotline for anyone working in the industry that has concerns including accommodation.