Cheyenne Nicholson

For many it’s the Kiwi dream – living and working on a beautiful windswept hill country farm. But what happens after you find that dream job or that dream employee? What are your legal responsibilities as an employer? And how do you manage things when the dream goes a bit pear-shaped?

Rights and responsibilities

Russell Drake of Fegan and Co says the most important thing when hiring someone new is to have a written employment agreement in place.

He says there are still so many in farming that don’t have an employment agreement. There have been so many changes in employment law over the past five years.

‘We normally advise that for longstanding employees a new employment agreement should be written up every five years.’

“We normally advise that for longstanding employees a new employment agreement should be written up every five years,” .

Any change to an employee’s terms and conditions – pay, benefits (housing, meat etc) should be made in writing at the time of the change.

Maintaining a record of hours worked is increasingly becoming an issue in the farming sector. Legislation in 2016 saw change where every employer must record hours of work for each employee, including those on salary. Before this there was an exemption for staff on a salary.

Key points

  • Make sure an up-to-date employment agreement is provided for staff.
  • Keep records of hours worked for both waged and salaried employees
  • Keep up-to-date electronic wage records.
  • Ensure salaried staff paid at least the minimum wage when working longer hours.

“In farming where hours can be extended at certain times of the year there has to be clear hours and days worked and it’s the employer’s responsibility to make sure that accurate records are maintained.”

“That flows through to wage records as well. A number of employers in the sheep and beef industry, within family-run enterprises, still do the wages in a hard-copy book. Those records have to be accurate and these days payroll systems are fairly cheap to access so there’s no reason why people should be doing paper wage books anymore.”

Russell and Linda-Maree Drake: There’s a general lack of process about how to resolve problems if they arise.

Minimum wage requirements relate strongly to hours worked and can catch some employers out. If someone works high hours you still need to check their salary to make sure they didn’t work for less than the minimum wage.

He says the value of farm accommodation needs to be taken into account as that does help with the minimum wage equation.

When it comes to employment matters Drake says many employers don’t feel they have any rights, that everything sits in favour of the employee. This is not the case, it is really about making sure the employer gets the process right and understand the practical application of the employment legislation.

“It’s a moving minefield.”

He says an employer should never feel the pressure to give an immediate response when they are confronted by an employee.

“You can get back to them and seek advice first on how best to handle the situation or respond.”

Dealing with disputes

Workplace issues are best to be resolved in the workplace wherever possible says Linda-Maree Drake of Fegan and Co.

She says the problem we find with farming in general is that there’s a general lack of process about how to resolve problems if they arise. So often they get escalated with employees seeking representation and often that representative doesn’t understand the problem and it blows up from there.

Having good policies and procedures lays the foundation for disputes to be dealt with quickly and appropriately.

“Policy and procedure is important regardless of the number of staff you have on a farm, however those policies do need to be specific to your business.”

By law, every employment agreement should have an employment relationship dispute resolution process which sets out the employees’ rights and a process they should go through to resolve any problems. It can be a standard template that you can get from MBIE or, better yet, having a specialised document for your business on dealing with disputes, which you can create with help from an HR specialist.

When an issue does come up, seeking advice on how to deal with it in-house by a recruitment or HR company is the best course of action.

“Often we see employers seeking assistance from their lawyer who might not specialise in employment law or from a mate down the road and this can often lead to problems escalating far beyond what they should have,” Russell Drake says.

“Often issues come about from miscommunication or misunderstanding so can easily be dealt with.”

A key thing for employers is to establish a good document trail – taking note of discussions, correspondence and meetings. Having a documented record that outlines the context of the dispute is important if the matter is taken further.

“People’s minds change as things progress so if things are well-documented at the time it provides a better platform for resolution.”

“Always treat a concern or issue raised by an employee as genuine. A lot of the time employers can dismiss things as not being important or a non-issue. This immediate dismissal of the issue can end up being a liability in itself.

Steps to dealing with disputes

  • Check policies, processes and agreements.
  • Be clear about the facts
  • Talk to each other
  • Clarify whether there is a problem, and if so, what it is.
  • Consider what assistance is needed to help resolve the problem.