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Organic farm ordered to pay $45k for exploiting workers

Gill Bonnett, Reporter

An organic farm near Christchurch has been ordered to pay more than $45,000 for exploiting workers it claimed were volunteers.

Robinwood Farms, whose owner and director is Julia Osselton, was found to have breached the rights of workers in a bid to avoid legal obligations.

The Employment Relations Authority found that Ms Osselton operated under the guise of providing a volunteer 'WWOOFing' experience, an acronym for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.

The Labour Inspectorate says other businesses making use of volunteer workers should take note of the cases, as staff have a right to be paid for all the work they do.

"The ERA agreed with the Inspectorate this was a clear and unequivocal case of worker exploitation which the employer attempted to hide under the guise of providing a 'WWOOFing' experience," said Labour Inspectorate regional manager David Milne."Due to the poor nature of the records kept, it will be difficult to ever know the true level of exploitation which occurred on the farm - though Ms Osselton herself suggested she had over a thousand people travel through her business every year."

The ERA imposed a $45,900 penalty on Robinwood Farms to be shared between the Crown, and the two workers who had been witnesses in the case taken by the Inspectorate, to set a strong deterrent for any other businesses engaging in what it called an 'intolerable situation'.

It was the second such award made by the ERA against one of Ms Osselton's businesses for her use of volunteers, with more than $20,000 paid to a Spanish worker employed by Karamea Holiday Homes Limited, as well as a $5000 penalty, following a determination last year.

Mr Milne warned other businesses which make use of volunteer workers to take note of the cases, saying workers have a fundamental right to be paid for all the work that they do.

"Wherever a worker is being rewarded in a business at whatever level, the Labour Inspectorate's starting position is that these people are employees and minimum employment standards apply, including being paid at least the minimum wage for every hour worked," he said.

"Not only does exploitation take advantage of workers, it undermines businesses which do meet their obligations, and endangers the reputation of New Zealand as a fair place to live, work, and do business."

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