Sunday, 1 April 2012

Easy pickings? Things to consider when fruit picking

Quite a lot of people we've meet in New Zealand have been travelling on some form of working holiday visa, which can range from 12 to 23 months in length, however, you can only work for a total of 12 months. The quickest and most obvious way of earning some money is by doing some seasonal work such as working on an orchard somewhere on the North Island, notably in the Bay of Islands, Bay of Plenty or Hawke's Bay. But is it really that easy to casually make a quick buck to help fund your travels?

I decided to write the following post based on my own experiences when I went to work at the Tollemache Orchards in Hastings for local contractors M.V.T. Services Ltd - run by business owners, Mike and Heinnie. I wish I had lots of positive things to write about my brief time working as an apple picker, but it certainly gave me a better insight into some of the questionable working practices of contractors.

There are lots of stories about how it's possible to earn couple of hundred dollars a day picking fruit, but the reality is that this isn't achievable in the short-term and you'll only ever get to that level of earning if you've worked up to it long enough. Realistically you're looking at weeks or maybe months before you can adjust to that level of skill and endurance.

Also, more importantly you need to know what you're being paid and that you're being paid correctly. EVERYONE is entitled to the minimum wage, I've verified this with the Department of Labour so even if you're being paid on piece rates (i.e. per bin of fruit collected) you're still entitled to the minimum wage. According to the New Zealand Department of Labour:

"For employees on piece rates - for example, workers who get so many cents a kilogram for fruit picked, or so many dollars per garment produced - the total amount earned still can't be less than the minimum wage."

This somewhat contradicts what I was being told by Mike at M.V.T. Services Ltd, who informed me that I wouldn't getting the minimum wage, as I was contracted on a bin rate and it had been worked out by someone (but by who?) that the average worker could pick three bins of apples a day. Going on the bin rate that we were being paid ($30 per bin) in order to achieve the minimum wage for an 8 and ½ hour day we would need to pick four bins, which would earn you a total of $120 for the day, whereas on the minimum wage ($13.50 per hour, as of 1stApril 2012) you should earn $114.75 for the same the number of hours.

The purpose of the minimum wage is to protect those who can't consistently pick 4 bins of apples a day and to prevent them from being exploited. However, this doesn't mean you can take the piss and do the bare minimum, as the employer would be well within their rights to ask you to leave if you're not being productive enough. If you can pick more than four bins worth of apples in a day then the bin rate is great, but from speaking to other backpackers this is generally the exception not the rule.

When you sit down and do the maths, the figures don't look great for the reward of your hard work. If you can pick two bins of apples per day at $30 per bin (bearing in mind that it took me three and a half hours to pick one bin), then for a day's work you'll be earning well below than the minimum wage if your employer refuses to comply with law and make your wages up to minimum pay. As mentioned before, to earn the minimum wage for an 8 and ½ hour day you would need to pick 4 bins worth of apples. I would consider myself a reasonably fit young person who isn't shy to do a day's hard work, but I could safely say that I wouldn't be earning the minimum wage for some considerable time. On the whole, I was largely made to feel expendable by the contractor when I made this point as I was told that there were any number of backpackers willing to take my job if I didn't like the situation.

Let's look at the rough economics of how a commercial orchard generates its money. Fruit is sold in the supermarket on a weight basis, per kilogram. For example, one kilogram of Gala apples will cost approx. $3.50 and one kilogram of plums will roughly cost $5.00. A full bin of apples weighs approximately 300kg. In a hypothetical situation, if the supermarket pays the orchard owner $2.00 per kilo to make some profit on what they sell in-store, the orchard owner will still make $600 per bin. Granted not all the fruit in the bins will be of the best quality and there will be some considerable wastage which is sorted in the packing house. But it makes you think how little you're getting for what can be very hard and physical work. Be warned that this is massively over simplified as there are other stages to consider in the process including the investment made on managing the trees before they bear any fruit, as well as the work done in the pack house, etc., but it definitely gives some food for thought.

This was an apple bin that I picked just over two thirds full

If I can offer some small pearls of wisdom before you decide to take up a seasonal job such fruit picking, then the first thing you should consider is whether you're suited for this type of work. If you've never had a job before or you're not normally inclined to do manual work but are looking for a quick source of money, a fruit picking job probably won't be for you as you'll end up quite frustrated and begrudge the lack of earnings. The higher bin rates seen advertised often involve picking the fruit later in the season but there is less to pick so will you have fewer bins to show for you efforts.

However, if you do still want to be a fruit picker, then try and get signed up early with a couple of orchards, at least 2-3 weeks before the fruit picking season starts as there will be plenty of other people in the same position looking for jobs. Most orchards will require you to work 6 day weeks as seasonal work can only be between 8-12 weeks. So find out what days you're likely to be working as you will be expected to work every day you're asked. Also, for picking apples and kiwi fruits this is weather dependent, so if you don't get a good run of weather (like what has happened this season), you're earning potential will be lower than estimated.

Some hostels will try and arrange work for you, this is fine if you plan to stay at the hostel for the duration of your employment. But if you decided to move on elsewhere but want to stay working at the same orchard you might be asked to leave by the employer due to the arrangements they have with the hostels who find them workers at often short notice. Also, if possible try to avoid working for contractors, my experience was that once I was dealing directly with the orchard owner you can build up a rapport and they would be open to flexible work arrangements.

Most important of all is know what your rights are. Just because you're a backpacker in a foreign country doesn't mean that you should be taken advantage of. If you feel that you're not receiving the minimum wage you should report this to the Department of Labour who have a free phone number (0800 20 90 20) and get some advice. Although, I get the impression that this is common practice with fruit picking, it is against the law. You should get some contact details for your employer including the business name and number, plus if possible a contact name, number and address (this should at least be on your contract - if not ask).

The intention of the post isn't to deter anyone from doing seasonal work but to give people a better understanding of what they're letting themselves in for. Seasonal work can be a great way to meet new people especially as you will be in the same situation and can share experiences associated with the role. If anything, it should also be used as an opportunity (without trying to sound like a cliché) to expand your horizons.


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  2. Thanks for taking the time to write that. I'm working as a fruit picker at the moment and it sucks. I've been picking apples for 2 days, enough time to realize that I won't reach the minimum wage. Now they told me that I'm going to be reassigned to another job. But who's gonna pay me this 2 days of really hard work?
    More people should know about this.

  3. Ahhh yes … the joys of apple picking. I picked my 1st season in New England in 1979 - a 150 acre farm and my first day was miserable … I think I picked two 15 bushel bins or 60 bushels and could hardly get the fork to my mouth at dinner. Only 1 or 2 pickers on the crew picked over 100 bushels in a day with any consistency. After 2 seasons I was picking 150 to 180 bushels on a good day … averaging 90-120 bushels a day. The 3rd season I took over the crew and did something no one had ever done before and picked over 200 bushels in a day. Year 5 I hit 235. Year 6 - 250, Year 7 - 285 and year 8 I picked 300 bushels or 20 bins in a day. My goal was 24 minute bins (15 bushels) - I could do 22 minutes in ideal conditions - that's a minute and a half per bushel (apprx 120-130 apples or 1 apple every 3/4 of a second). When I broke the 200 bushel barrier, 3 other pickers on my crew did the same … before that it was considered impossible. No one else ever picked 300 (6.5 tons) that I know of and I did it only once in 8 years of picking. A picker must realize that a grower has only so much time to get his crop in and cannot have a crew with more than a person or two that is only picking 2 bins a day. I expected my pickers to average 4 bins a day (60 bushels) … with a core of good pickers averaging more like 90-100 bushels a day. I could tolerate a person or two only picking 2 or 3 bins a day if they showed up every day and were consistent. We picked 150 acre farm that averaged 30,000 bushels in a season. In 1979 we received 52cents a bushel or $7.80 a bin … when I quit in 1986 we got 95 cents a bushel or $14.25 a bin. I had plans to pick in New Zealand but never made it. Every season the first two weeks were the hardest … but then you get in shape … and the picking gets bette and the weather cooler and once you hit your stride it is a helluva experience learning the Zen of Apple Picking. - 'Some say the man come to harvest the apple -- I say the apple come to harvest the man'.

    1. 'Some say the man come to harvest the apple -- I say the apple come to harvest the man'. you are a dude. BE the apple man.
      ☮☮✌✌🍎 🍎

  4. correction - 2 bins was 30 bushels - not 60.

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