Southland dairy farmer fined $30,000 for underpaying workers

No holiday or leave records were kept  any of employees.
No holiday or leave records were kept any of employees. Photo credit: Getty

A dairy farmer in Southland has been ordered to pay $30,000 in penalties for underpaying a number of his employees.

Christoph Kenel, who operated Swiss Farm in Winton, was investigated by the Labour Inspectorate after one of his workers laid a complaint with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) in 2019.

The former employee said they did not receive a written employment agreement and were being paid less than minimum wage.

The investigation found Kenel didn't keep holiday and leave records for any of his employees, with three workers failing to receive their final holiday pay when they stopped working at the farm.

"At least one employee did not get paid time-and-a-half or receive an alternative holiday for working on a public holiday," MBIE said in a statement on Friday.

"Due to inadequate holiday and leave records it was not possible to know the extent to which other employees did not receive their holiday and leave entitlements."

Of the 17 people employed by Kenel between September 2018 and September 2019, only one had an employment agreement, which they had supplied themselves, the inspectorate found.

The wage and time records Kenel kept were also lacking enough detail to tell if workers had been paid the minimum wage.

The Employment Relations Authority determined Kenel's actions were intentional, saying he "took no steps throughout his history as an employer in New Zealand to familiarise himself with his legal obligations" and was "wilfully blind".

In 2015 Kenel was also fined $64,800 for discharging leachate to land, which a judge ruled that thought was not being deliberate represented an "overriding lack of care and total disregard for the environment".

Callum McMillan, Labour Inspectorate dairy sector strategy lead, called Kenel's treatment of the workers "disappointing".

"The industry has taken some steps over the last few years by setting expectations and establishing assurance systems, and has support readily available for farmers on matters of employment," McMillan said. 

"This makes it even more disappointing that there are still dairy farmers who are failing to get the minimum requirements right, and raises a question around the due diligence the industry has in place."

He said it's not enough for employers to take a passive approach to compliance with employment standards.

"Employers have a responsibility to get the basics right no matter how long they've been operating."