WWOOFers: Good or Bad?

WWOOFing – a convenient way to find temporary volunteer workers with no ongoing obligations to meet minimum employment standards.  Last week my colleague Phil wrote arguing there was a place for WWOOFing in New Zealand, provided that minimum standards were adhered to.  The other side of the fence is that WWOOFing schemes can be too easily exploited (whether inadvertently or not) and breach employment standards.

To avoid liability for breaching minimum employment standards it is essential the work is truly voluntary.  Hosting WWOOFers should be a truly voluntary agreement where WWOOFers gain new and unique knowledge, are provided adequate accommodation and are given nutritious meals in for assisting on an organic farm.  The reality is often different.

The voluntary nature of work can be questioned when a WWOOFer is used by farmers to increase profits and by WWOOFers to support travel.  A recent Employment Relations Authority decision held a Christchurch farm (which argued its workers were volunteers) breached minimum employment standards.  The ERA found, they were not volunteers as the farm ran commercial activities and the so called volunteers were used to support those operations in return for reward.  Arguably if a business provides any form of reward for jobs performed an employment relationship is created.

A power imbalance often exists in favour of farmers.  WWOOFers may have limited access to employment opportunities, rely on free food and accommodation, and have limited knowledge of New Zealand law.  In the Christchurch case the power imbalance led to WWOOFers receiving a bed under stairs and food which had been retrieved from a dumpster in exchange for their labour. 

In New Zealand there are various different online platforms where opportunities can be advertised. .  The wide use of WWOOFers has led to farmers genuinely misunderstanding how WWOOFers can legitimately be given opportunities.  However, whenever a reward is offered (such as food or accommodation) for work, farmers are taking a risk that could cost them in the long run.

Phil pointed out the benefit WWOOFing provides to farmers by allowing them to fill ad hoc vacancies.  Sometimes a revolving flow of WWOOFers is used instead of permanent employees.  While farmers may struggle to fill vacancies these should still be filled through legitimate pathways.  They can hire casual or permanent New Zealand workers; contract out work; or offer employment to foreigners with a valid working visa.

While WWOOFing sounds like a delightful experience the reality is it can be the opposite.  Today there are hundreds of WWOOFers working around the country, many will be receiving less than they would be entitled to if they were employed.  Equally, for farmers relying on WWOOFers, if challenged some of these arrangements may be subject to employment law, as was highlighted in Christchurch, leaving a costly mess for farmers.  In order to tidy up this gap, which some farms are looking to exploit, it should be closed completely.  All such arrangements should be seen for what they are and should be subject to employment law.

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