The couple, 23-year-olds Luke and May from England, said they found the job on Facebook ahead of moving to New Zealand but were shocked by the conditions they were exposed to when arriving at the strawberry farm — but the owner claims to have a different version of events.
Fruit picking is a popular choice for backpackers in both New Zealand and Australia with seasonal work often required as part of a working holiday visa. In the past, harsh working conditions, particularly on Australian farms, have been brought into question.
Couple ready to 'call it quits' shortly after arriving
The couple, who post their travel adventures on social media, claim they agreed to pay $NZ75 a week which would allow them to camp and cook in a dedicated field at Wee Red Barn in Masterton near Wellington, while they worked nearby on the same property picking strawberries.
However, their stay got off to a bad start with the couple claiming they were told by owner Dot Bissett to "park anywhere". "Then literally five minutes later, she comes marching out and shouted at us," for parking in the wrong spot, May claimed in a video shared on TikTok.
According to the couple, the kitchen they had access to was like a "musty little barn" with "dirt, mould, dust" and had "little mice running around everywhere". Although ready to "call it quits" then and there, they decided to stick it out and give the farm a chance — but the following day was no better.
Couple 'scolded' and 'fired'
After being given "brief" instructions, they began picking strawberries from the plants when suddenly the owner appeared. It's claimed May turned to look at her as she approached them, and when she did, "she started shouting at May for turning around," Luke said.
"She told me to not turn over my shoulder and look at other people and to get on with picking," May claimed in the video, which has now racked up over 250,000 views. They said they continued to be scolded for not picking the damaged fruit the geese had targeted. That's when Luke claims "we lost our jobs".
"We worked hard all day, for free, hit the targets, everything she wanted to do, but yet she sacked us because I looked over my shoulder, he looked at me. She called us children," May continued.
Farm boss denies couple's claims
The couple implied their alleged sacking was unfair and uncalled for, and suggested they felt like "slaves" working "for free" in "horrible conditions" — and called the owner "vile".
However, Bissett told the New Zealand Herald a different version of events. She claims the couple "never got fired, I never fired them" and said after the brief alternation, the couple simply walked off in anger. The farm owners also took their case to Facebook on Wednesday saying "we pay all of our staff for the work they do whether they've performed their duties or not" seemingly denying allegations they refused to pay.
The Facebook post explained the couple weren't paid right away because of their weekly pay cycle but the owner said "under the circumstances of which we've been held, we are paying them today instead".
The pair also highlighted several negative Google reviews given to Wee Red Barn. Many claimed they too were unfairly treated with many quitting not long after starting. Meanwhile, responding to the couple's video one person said: "I've heard horrible things about Wee Red Barn from other backpackers also!!! You aren’t alone in this".
Worker abuse claims on Aussie farms
Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for backpackers or travellers to feel they've been treated unfairly while undergoing seasonal work. There have been growing concerns about worker abuse on fruit farms in Australia with seasonal workers admitting they often "feel like slaves".
Many have complained of working in tough conditions, including long hours and poor living facilities, for minimal wages. "This is starting to feel like slavery rather than working for money," an anonymous worker previously told Yahoo News Australia.
In Australia, Fair Work requires all adult casual fruit or vegetable pickers to be paid at least $26.73 per hour, which increased in April, 2022 following complaints seasonal workers faced "unsafe conditions and rampant exploitation".
Working holiday visa holders must complete 88 days of labour to allow them to extend their stay in Australia for a second or third year. In New Zealand however, the maximum time you can work in the horticulture and viticulture industries (the food, plants and wine industries) is six weeks. This includes planting, maintaining, harvesting and picking crops. The rate is roughly around NZ$25 an hour.
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