New Zealand: Vineyard Workers Go Wildcat

New Zealand: Vineyard Workers Go Wildcat

On Friday 22 July some forty contracted pruners and wrappers went on strike against our contractor, Kiwi Bunkhouse, Ltd.

Our demands were an increase in our per-plant rate, guaranteed minimum wage for workers who didn’t reach the threshold on their own, and to be treated with respect by our employer. This action was prompted by our contractor refusing to pay many workers the minimum wage. Trying to justify their actions, KBH accused “lazy people” of costing them money by intentionally not working hard.

We know that all workers must be paid the minimum wage, there’s no grey area there. I think there are a couple of reasons why our contractor tried to get away with this, and why many other contractors in the industry continue to do so. Most seasonal workers are foreigners, many of whom speak English as a second or third language and some who barely speak it at all, and this inability to communicate effectively makes exploitation by the employer easier. Additionally, with the increasing popularity of the Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme to bring poor Pacific Islanders to New Zealand for seasonal work, there aren’t as many jobs for backpackers and the labour market is flooded. Both of these situations play in to the employers favour.

Kiwi Bunkhouse workers receive our payslips after work on Thursdays. On 21 July many of us saw that we had been paid less than the minimum wage – the most extreme case was one person who had received a total of $74 after deductions for tools. Because most of the pruners were earning above the minimum wage the majority of the affected workers were wrappers, most of whom are women. But it was largely through the efforts of one pruner that the strike action was realised. R., a Belgian, organised a number of fellow workers in his hostel and later visited the other two where KBH employees are living. At each he announced there would be a strike the following day for the reasons mentioned above and left it to these workers to discuss and debate the action and prepare for the next day.

About forty workers struck, more than half of Kiwi Bunkhouse’s workforce. We met early, before work, and walked to the office where the supervisors gather before leaving for the vineyards. R., our spokesperson, informed D., the head supervisor, that we would not be working until our grievances were addressed. D., clearly caught off guard, gave an order that we would work and he would take our concerns to the owner of the company, S. Most of the striking workers responded, “No, we’re not working today,” and R. reiterated our grievances. D. relented, saying he would try to set up a meeting with S. that morning. We left and parted company back to our respective hostels. Several hours later D. made the rounds with a written “staff memo” from Kiwi Bunkhouse, declaring the wrappers would receive an increase in their per-plant rate and the minimum wage top-up would be reinstated for the remainder of the season.

However, a couple of workers, including our spokesperson, R., were terminated as a result of their perceived organising actions. Some strikers wanted to stay out until these workers were reinstated, others wanted to go back since those who were fired didn’t really want their jobs back anyway, and quite a few remained on the fence, unsure of what to do. As we tried to decide what our next steps would be we received word that some other workers, acting independent of the strike and trying to resolve their own concerns over the contract, had relayed our story to the local newspaper, the Marlborough Express.

The Express had called Kiwi Bunkhouse for comment, prompting them to quickly apologise and re-hire the workers fired during the strike. By that evening our contractor conceded to our demands and, satisfied with the results of our action, work resumed the next day.

In the grand scheme of the Marlborough wine industry this means nothing, but it makes a huge difference to all of us who work for Kiwi Bunkhouse. And now the level of solidarity among Kiwi Bunkhouse workers is high, certainly as high as it’s been all season. We’ve seen what happens when we stand together and we’re prepared to maintain what we’ve won. In the past few weeks since the strike we’ve seen our contractor treating us with more respect (although the general consensus is it’s for appearances only, we’re okay with that), and those of us with contacts on other vineyards have been trying to spread the word to other seasonal workers.

Before and after the strike I spoke with many of my co-workers, either trying to get them to join the action or trying to understand the reasons why some refused. There seemed to be two dominant discouraging factors. Either they were worried about being fired, unable to find work again with so many new people on the market, and therefore losing the opportunity to extend their visa; or they were earning above the minimum wage already and didn’t feel they were affected by our contractor’s actions. The fact that we didn’t have solid numbers of how many workers were actually going to strike made a lot of people timid, and the whole action was so spur-of-the-moment that many strikers didn’t even decide to participate until that morning. Whereas the former group was sympathetic to the strike and supportive to the extent that they thought they could be, I struggle with not knowing how to reach people in the latter group. Many of these people tend to view the situation through a different lens; not one of solidarity, all for one and one for all, but one of individualism. How do we change a person’s mindset?

Posted By

Oct 9 2011 05:35


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