Dec 18, 2016

MBIE has WWOOFer host companies in its sights

New Zealand’s WWOOFer host farms and businesses - could find themselves in trouble with the law after an investigation by MBIE’s Labour Inspectorate into conditions around volunteers working in commercial operations in exchange for accommodation. The inspectorate issued a position statement in early December. MBIE accuses some businesses of “disguising employees as volunteers” and specifically singles out WWOOFing.

Category: General
Posted by: oanz

“The investigation followed on from a number of complaints about businesses taking advantage of schemes such as Willing Workers on Organic Farms and VolunteerX, advertising on their sites to find travellers willing to take on work in exchange for accommodation...

“Businesses cannot evade their obligations as employers by calling their workers volunteers and then simply rewarding them with a bed in a dormitory, food and Wi-Fi, rather than a fair wage,” Labour Inspectorate General Manager George Mason said in a press statement.

“This practice is unfair to businesses that do follow the law and pay their employees. It damages the prospects of people seeking employment in the industry and also takes advantage of the good nature of travellers who may not know what their employment rights are.”

The Inspectorate’s view is that any worker being rewarded with food and accommodation is in an employment relationship. In that case normal employer obligations apply, such as:

  • Having employment agreements in writing
  • Paying at least the relevant minimum wage in money
  • Providing at least the minimum holiday entitlements
  • Keeping a record of hours worked, wages paid and leave taken
  • Ensuring employees have a valid right to work in New Zealand
  • Complying with other legislative requirements, including tax, health & safety, and ACC.

If the Labour Inspectorate determines that a business operation has failed to properly treat workers as employees, it is highly likely that enforcement action will be taken in response, the statement says.

Labour Inspectorate Regional Manager David Milne says the Labour Inspectorate is supportive of genuine volunteering in New Zealand, and there may be some circumstances where WWOOFing could be considered a genuine volunteer arrangement.

“However, we strongly encourage businesses which make use of volunteer labour to read carefully over the inspectorate’s position statement to ensure their arrangement is lawful. If you are unsure whether or not your arrangement is genuine volunteering or an employment relationship, we recommend you seek independent legal advice.”

New Zealand is estimated to have just over 2300 WWOOFer host farms and enterprises - the second highest number in the world. Australia has around 2600 hosts.

OANZ CEO Brendan Hoare says WWOOFing is a “fruitful exchange” and it is unfortunate that the organic sector could be penalised by the MBIE stance.

"WWOOFing is synonymous with the growth of organic. It has been a long-standing and mutually-beneficial international cultural exchange for the organic community,  where young (and not so young) interested travellers learn practical land skills in exchange for their labour. It has in the past reflected the core values of fairness, care, health, ecology and the cultivation of people.

“However, with the advent of organic becoming more mainstream, there are abuses from both volunteers seeking a cheap holiday and hosts claiming their properties are organic when they aren’t.”

Check this FAQ for more detail on the inspectorate’s position and how to comply.