Canterbury farmer fined $30,000 after underpaying workers

The company ran two dairy farms in south Canterbury.
The company ran two dairy farms in south Canterbury. Photo credit: Getty

A Canterbury dairy farmer has been ordered to pay $30,000 after "intentional" employment law breaches caused "significant material hardship" to a number of employees.

Greywacke Farms Limited and its director Dietmar Kopetschny were penalised $20,000 and $10,000 respectively for the breaches, which came after an investigation in 2019, the Employment Relations Authority (ERA) said on Wednesday.

The company ran two dairy farms in south Canterbury that supplied milk to Fonterra, with Kopetschny also operating as a sole trader working as a share-milker. 

The investigation, by the Labour Inspectorate, part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, was sparked by complaints from former and current employees at the company.

Labour Inspectorate acting regional manager Callum McMillan said the investigation revealed breaches of minimum employment standards in relation to 24 workers across Kopetschny's operations, with around half of those migrants on temporary work visas.

McMillan said Kopetschny had a "complicated rostering system" and manually recorded payroll and leave data, which resulted in "failures to keep compliant wage, time, holiday and leave records, failures to calculate and pay correct holiday pay to eight employees and failure to pay minimum wage to at least one employee".

Kopetschny also made deductions for accommodation from the wages of one employee without obtaining consent.

"The ERA found the breaches caused significant material hardship to some of the low-paid employees and gave the employer an unfair competitive advantage over businesses that comply with legal requirements."

The ERA said the breaches were "intentional" and could have been avoided if Kopetschny had invested in a more efficient payroll system or used publicly available guidance.

He was made personally liable for $10,000 in penalties, with $7500 of that to be paid out to three former employees.

McMillan said the breaches were "disappointing".

"We have been working together with the dairy industry over a number of years to lift employment law compliance. The industry made significant improvements to put assurance systems in place and have readily available support for farmers on matters of employment.

"This makes it even more disappointing to find there are still dairy farmers that undermine minimum employment standards.  Employers cannot cut their overheads by taking advantage of workers."

McMillan said large companies like Fonterra have an important role to play in ensuring fair treatment of workers "from the top down", and that the Inspectorate had worked with the co-op to promote compliance within their supply chains.