Asparagus grower ordered to pay $50,000 in owed pay to migrant workers

The Labour Inspector viewed wage and time records for the company's 2017 harvest season.
The Labour Inspector viewed wage and time records for the company's 2017 harvest season. Photo credit: File / Getty

A horticulture employer in Canterbury has been ordered to repay nearly $50,000 after underpaying migrant workers and making unlawful deductions to their pay.

Christopher Gray, trading as Motukarara Asparagus, was found to have breached the Minimum Wage Act 1983, the Wages Protection Act 1983 and the Holidays Act 2003, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment said.

The issues were uncovered by the Labour Inspectorate as part of a standard audit undertaken at the end of the first year that Gray was a Recognised Seasonal Employer (RSE). 

The Labour Inspector viewed wage and time records for the company's 2017 harvest season and found that some of the employees' wages were calculated based on the amount of asparagus employees picked – paid at $2.50 per kilogram.

"It was clear the business had no system in place to check that employees earned at least the minimum wage for every hour worked," said Kevin Finnegan, Labour Inspectorate horticulture sector lead.

"If employees are earning piece rates that work out to be below the minimum wage per hour, they need to be topped up to at least the minimum wage – Mr Gray did not do so."

Ten of the employees were seasonal migrant workers, two were other migrant workers and one was a New Zealander.

As a result of the findings, Gray's RSE renewal application submitted to Immigration New Zealand was declined and his RSE status was cancelled in 2018.

The Labour Inspectorate also found Gray failed to pay employees time and half when they worked public holidays, failed to provide alternative holidays and did not pay employees for Christmas Day when they didn't work, though they were entitled to pay for an "otherwise working day" in accordance with the Holidays Act.

He also made wage deductions for things like airfares, accommodation and medical examinations for the employees' visas. And though these deductions can be made legally, employees must give their written consent for them to happen. Finnegan said Gray was unable to demonstrate he had obtained this consent, and additional wage deductions that were not accounted for in Gray's records were also found.

The Employment Relations Authority (ERA) ordered Gray to pay $49,722.49 plus interest to the 13 former employees, with further penalties for the breaches to be determined at a later date.

"It is disappointing to see such crude breaches occurring in the horticulture sector, when the Labour Inspectorate has been working with the industry to improve compliance with the minimum standards," Finnegan said.