Christchurch organic farm exploited 'thousands' of WWOOFers

The farm is accused of providing 'inhumane' living conditions and feeding spoilt meat.
The farm is accused of providing 'inhumane' living conditions and feeding spoilt meat. Photo credit: Robinwood Farms / Facebook

An organic farm near Christchurch has been found guilty of exploiting thousands of travellers through a volunteer scheme.

The Employment Relations Authority (ERA) ruled Robinwood Farms Limited breached the rights of workers it said were volunteers, following an Inspectorate investigation.

The volunteers were Willing Workers on Organic Farms - or WWOOFers. They help with work on organic properties.

While no records were kept on site at Robinwood Farms, the sole director and shareholder Julia Osselton said that she had more than 1000 people travel through her business every year.

A witness statement from a worker provided to the ERA recalled 'inhumane' living conditions, where they slept in a small storage room under the stairs without proper ventilation or a heater.

The Inspectorate was also told that food was routinely collected from waste bins at supermarkets before being fed to workers at Robinwood Farms along with spoilt meat.

Evidence uncovered on the farm in Tai Tapu showed the so-called 'volunteers' were working up to 40 hours per week, often as labour hired out to garden or cut firewood for Ms Osselton's profit.

They were paid $120 per week in addition to food and accommodation, regardless of hours worked or what work they performed, with a visitor's book on site showing many to be from overseas.

"Rather than enjoying a genuine volunteer experience, these people were exploited as free labour for the profit of Ms Osselton's businesses," says Labour Inspectorate national manager Stu Lumsden.

"While Ms Osselton claimed that these workers were 'WWOOFers' engaged in a cultural and skill based exchange, and not employees, our investigation showed this was clearly not the case."

While penalties to be paid for the breaches are still being discussed, the company could be liable for up to $20,000 per employee per breach.

Anyone concerned about their employment situation, or the situation of someone they know, should call 0800 20 90 20 where they can report their concerns in a safe environment.

Newshub.