Don't get into hot water over volunteers


WWOOFer’s – not to be confused with a type of bass speaker typically found in car speaker systems (subwoofers) – are volunteers (typically travellers) who stay and help on organic farms for four to six hours a day.

The wwoofing movement sprang from humble origins 40 years ago in the UK, with ‘townies’ looking for farmers willing to accept unskilled labour in exchange for board and lodging.  Now it is truly international with people volunteering on farms through the globally recognised scheme – WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or Willing Workers on Organic Farms) including in New Zealand.  There are other similar online communities joining up volunteers with farmers.

However, here in New Zealand, some farm owners have found themselves in hot water from exploiting young travellers who provide work through this scheme.

The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment has run a number of recent investigations into this type of volunteer labour, and found farm owners to be evading minimum entitlements by calling workers “volunteers.”  Farmers who are found to be liable in the Employment Relations Authority will be liable for wages arears and holiday pay arrears plus interest.  Farmers can also be liable for a penalty of up to $20,000.

Wwoofing provides an excellent opportunity for both farmers and young travellers.  Farmers can find unskilled and ad hoc help on their farms.  Travellers have an opportunity to live on a New Zealand farm and to experience rural life in New Zealand.  Should New Zealand’s labour and immigration laws intervene with that happy medium? 

In extreme cases where the wwoofer is clearly being exploited by being required to work over 40 hours a week, and receive dire living conditions in return, intervention is needed, and should be expected.  Those people are clearly workers, and entitled to the minimum standards and entitlements (such as minimum wages, holidays, and an employment agreement).    

In genuine wwoofing cases, where travellers are volunteering a few hours here and there on farms and in return are well looked after by the farm owner, let’s continue to allow that.  Such temporary and ad hoc help during a backpacker’s trip through New Zealand should not interfere with the policy intent of our labour and immigration laws (which are there to help protect the minimum rights of New Zealand workers).

However, Farmers who venture into this area should stay alert and look after their volunteers.  Those who exploit or otherwise take advantage of volunteer help by not providing adequate conditions, overworking volunteers, can expect the full force of the law to kick in and the consequence of that.

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Philip McCarthy