Asparagus grower stung $50,000 for underpaying workers, holiday pay breaches

An asparagus grower who paid Fijian workers less than minimum wage, no holiday pay and made unlawful deductions for airfares and accommodation will have to repay them close to $50,000.

The Employment Relations Authority ordered Christopher Gray of Motukarara Asparagus in Canterbury to repay 13 pickers a total of $49,722.49 after an audit.

A Labour Inspector, auditing employers involved in the Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme (RSE), visited the business in September 2018.

The audit followed Gray submitting a second application to the RSE Unit of Immigration New Zealand in May 2018 to recruit workers from Fiji for the asparagus harvest that generally runs from October to December each year.

The inspector found seven employment breaches to various employment acts including the Minimum Wage Act, Wages Protection Act and the Holidays Act.

These included:

* Failure to pay the minimum wage for all hours worked

* Failure to pay time and a half for hours worked on a public holiday

* Failure to provide alternative holidays

* Failure to pay unworked public holidays

* Failure to obtain/and or keep written authority from employees to make deductions from their wages

* Failure to keep copies of each employee’s individual employment agreement

* Failure to offer a written employment agreement to 1 x New Zealand citizen employee

Horticulture sector inspector Kevin Finnegan said workers were paid on weight of asparagus picked and there was no system in place to make sure they were earning at least minimum wage.

He found workers, most from Fiji, were being deducted for things like airfares and accommodation without their consent and there was a failure to pay them time and a half for working public holidays.

Unlawful deductions ranged from around $2000 to close to $4500 per worker.

There was no evidence that any public holiday entitlements were recognised by Gray.

In his evidence, he confirmed that there was no payment made for Christmas Day because the employees only received payment when they worked. This is in breach of the Holidays Act.

The records provided to the Labour Inspector did not show payments had been made for other public holiday entitlements including Labour Day, Canterbury Anniversary Day and Boxing Day.

Gray was ordered to pay arrears for the underpaid workers to take them up to the minimum wage.

One worker was only underpaid $35 but most were underpaid between $4000 and $5600. The workers were also entitled to interest on the payments.

“The employees have been deprived of the use of their money for a period of time and Mr Gray has had the resulting benefit of the use of the money,” Helen Doyle of the ERA found.

“I consider it appropriate therefore for interest to be awarded and order accordingly.”

The ERA was now determining whether penalties should be imposed on Motukarara Asparagus for the employment breaches.

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