New Zealand’s Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) wants to work with MBIE’s Labour Inspectorate after it says it was unfairly targeted in an investigation into exploitative labour practices. The organisation says as far as it is aware, none of the businesses that MBIE accuses of “disguising employees as volunteers” are registered WWOOF hosts and the inspectorate’s clamp-down could be devastating to a sector that generates significant goodwill for New Zealand.
In a statement in early December, inspectorate General Manager George Mason accused some New Zealand businesses of “evading 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.”
But WWOOF NZ Director Jane Strange says the organisation is disappointed with the MBIE position and the “one-sided” media coverage it has generated. She is calling for the New Zealand Government to adopt a similar stance to WWOOF volunteers to that in Canada and Australia.
The following is taken from a letter from Jane Strange:
“MBIE officials have contacted us over the last 12 months about people they are investigating and so far none of them have been registered WWOOF hosts. We are working with MBIE and hope to find a solution.
"We agree that it is necessary to protect workers' rights. However, WWOOF and similar programmes are being put into the same category as programmes involving immigrant workers and students working in the hope of gaining residency. Some of those people are being exploited. However these are not WWOOF volunteers.
"The WWOOF experience is voluntary and is not tied to any contracts or being blackmailed to work. Any member who does not like the situation they are in is free to leave at any time. We have a complaints policy that allows problems to be sorted if members feel things are not going well.
"WWOOF is not an “employment" situation. The majority of our members are tourists from Europe, North America, Australia and Japan. WWOOF volunteering is done for a few weeks here and there as an educational tourist activity as they travel around the country. It is incidental to the main purpose of their visit to New Zealand.
"Our members are not looking for a way to leave their home countries, or to apply for residency.
"The Government requires them to have a working holiday visa which allows them to participate in paid work. However, WWOOF volunteers choose to stay with WWOOF hosts for some of their time. They want to experience living with local families, participate in a cultural exchange and learn new skills, such as organic farming and gardening, homesteading, crafts, starting a small enterprise, permaculture, biodynamics, and alternative building/power. Some of them want to practice speaking English.
"New Zealanders can also participate in the hands-on learning experience either at home or through the WWOOF programmes in more than 100 countries in Europe, North, Central and South America and Africa.
"WWOOF creates a large amount of good will for New Zealand and life-long friendships are made. WWOOFers return with their families, they tell their friends about it and buy Kiwi products in their own countries because of fond memories of New Zealand. WWOOF hosts see themselves as ambassadors for New Zealand and pride themselves on welcoming foreign visitors into their homes and offering them an unforgettable real Kiwi living experience.
"An email recently received from one of our hosts sums up what WWOOF is about:
"'What you have created is awesome… The friendships, experiences, laughter and lessons learned, shared and appreciated have been phenomenal. Seeing them grow, learn, enjoy and then go off travelling together… and then having them send me pictures of them meeting up on the other side of the world, sending their grandparents in to visit me, and bringing their parents back to stay.
"'It is wonderful to nurture them and set them free and see them fly, to see them struggle through hardships and find support from each other and our wee family. WWOOF has given birth to a trillion amazing life events. It seriously hurts my heart to feel all this may be bought to a halt because of black and white government rules. Please keep fighting for what you have created, please find a viable avenue to continue this fabulous shared experience of personalities, life, learning and laughter.'
"We are requesting that MBIE look at the Canadian government’s well-considered regulations on WWOOF and other programmes which involve people volunteering and receiving free food and accommodation.
"The Canadian Immigration website says:
“'There may be other types of unpaid short-term work where the work is really incidental to the main reason that a person is visiting Canada and is not a competitive activity, even though non-monetary valuable consideration is received. For instance, if a tourist wishes to stay on a family farm and work part time just for room and board for a short period (ie 1-4 weeks), this person would not be considered a worker.
“'The farm work cannot be the main reason for entering Canada; the foreign national must have other plans for the majority of their time in Canada. Volunteering is to be secondary (incidental) to the main reason - ie tourism, visiting family/friends, etc.'
"The Australian immigration website offers similar advice. 'You may be able to work as a volunteer if you main purpose in visiting Australia is tourism, and any voluntary work remains incidental... It is acceptable, under the conditions of an eVisitor, to receive meals, accommodation and/or reimbursement for out-of-pocket living expenses in return for voluntary work.'
"Ideally we would like to have the WWOOF programme recognised as a legitimate educational tourist activity where people on a tourist visa can participate without having to obtain a working holiday visa, without being paid minimum wage or paying tax on the value of the food and accommodation. New Zealand has a wonderful reputation worldwide of being friendly and welcoming to tourists and it would be such a shame to have to tell them that they cannot participate in this programme here, but instead they should go to Australia, Canada, Sweden, Spain, Israel etc, where they will be welcome."