The Council of Trade Unions is demanding an apology from Finance Minister Bill English for saying a lot of young Kiwis needed for farm work are "pretty damned hopeless".
Mr English is standing by his comments and says they were made in the context that there are a hard core of young men who have become adults without qualifications, skills or hope.
He made the comments at a Federated Farmers meeting in Feilding last Friday in response to a question about the use of immigrant workers on farms.
Labour MP Iain Lees-Galloway was there, and circulated them to the media.
He quoted Mr English as saying: "A lot of the Kiwis that are meant to be available (for farm work) are pretty damned hopeless. They won't show up. You can't rely on them and that is one of the reasons why immigration's a bit permissive, to fill that gap."
Mr Lees-Galloway says Mr English went on to say New Zealand had "a cohort of Kiwis who can't get a licence because they can't read and write properly and don't look to be employable, you know, basically young males."
CTU president Richard Wagstaff says Mr English should apologise to working people for his "reprehensible" comments.
"Working people are the lifeblood of our country," he said.
"English's comments are clearly ridiculous... it was a foolish thing to say and shows a lack of understanding about working people and their lives."
Mr Lees-Galloway says the comments were "disgraceful".
Mr English said in a statement to NZ Newswire no one would disagree that a better job had to be done to deal with "complex disadvantage" in the country's poorest areas.
"I made these comments in the context that there is a hard core of young New Zealand men who, for a number of reasons, have entered adulthood without qualifications, skills or hope," he said.
"We know this because, for the first time, a government has dug into its own data to find out who these people are, where they are, and what has led them to these sad outcomes.
"With that information, we're working with agencies and NGOs to develop more specialised services that will capture these people at a young age and help them become independent and lead better lives."