Everything you need to know about WWOOFing and volunteering in NZ

For decades, New Zealand has welcomed backpackers who wish to exchange hard graft for accomodation and a decent meal twice a day. Due to a new ERA ruling which states that WWOOFing and volunteering, is in fact illegal, the board-for-wages era has come to an end.

Willing Workers On Organic Farms or WWOOFing, does sound whole lot like rural slavery involving whip-cracking task masters and a diet of tofu and carrots. However the deal is this – Usually you live with your host and are expected to join in and cooperate with the day to day activities. You work 4-6 hours a day in exchange for accommodation, food and the sharing of knowledge and skills. It has been a hugely popular way for backpackers to have an “authentic” Kiwi experience and for farmers to fill shortage gaps in the agricultural sector.

So why did it end?

Last year, the Labour Inspectorate undertook a series of investigations and found that volunteers and WWOOFers were, in fact, employees. The name given to an employment relationship will not necessarily be determinative of the relationship in law. An agreement between an employer and the worker, that he or she is a volunteer, will not be enough on its own and backpackers can face a hefty fine if they are found to be “volunteering” for a bed.

The Inspectorate clarified guidelines for employers and general manager George Mason warned businesses about disguising employees as “volunteers.” He went on to say “”Businesses cannot evade their obligations as employers by calling their workers volunteers and then simply rewarding them with a bed in a dormitory, food and Wi-Fi rather than a fair wage.” Mason was referring to those employers which exploit the system by not issuing an employment contract. These employers avoid paying a fair wage, holiday and sick pay, as well as avoiding any legal complaints against them.

What does this mean for would-be WWOOFers?

People who visit NZ on the WWOOFer schemes realise that going clubbing in the big cities is not the be-all-and-end-all of a travelling holiday. Most participants want to prove to themselves that they can endure hard, physical labour, and sustain themselves during their travels while having an authentic Kiwi learning experience.

This is still achievable by contacting seasonal recruitment agencies online, but it will certainly pose an issue for those travelling on a holiday visa. When entering NZ on a holiday visa, visitors are meant to spend their time touring or visiting friends or family. They are prohibited from engaging in productive work, which includes any activity that is being undertaken for any gain or reward, such as board and lodging. As a result, a visitor engaging in WWOOFing is working in breach of his or her visa.

If you want to avoid a hefty fine, and deportation, you will need to apply for the correct visa which allows you to work for an employer for actual wages which are paid into your bank account. Employers could deduct reasonable accommodation costs from an employee’s wages provided it was agreed in writing and the deduction was made before wages were paid, eradicating “cash-in-hand” scenarios forevermore.

Is there a loophole for WWOOFERS?

Yes, there is. However, this is a risky option to take. There are still WWOOFER websites which you can join and they will take you on to work. They use the “grey areas” of the government guidelines to allow volunteers to join their farms. For example, a volunteer is deemed as an employee if they are providing labour which commercially benefits the business. All the employer needs to say is that the volunteer is not contributing to their income and hope they are not investigated. This is obviously a spectacularly shady way to work in NZ, with lifelong repercussions for both parties, but it is still an option.

What now?

There are many New Zealand based recruitment agencies which specialise in finding seasonal work on your behalf, and prior to your arrival. Agstaff and Canstaff are two such companies which have assisted many travellers get jobs, help people to source accomodation, and impart general local wisdom to applicants.

There are also a multitude of Immigration Advisor options nationwide. We have provided a list of trusted links below to get you started on your journey to NZ, taking the stress out of the search for reputable companies. Getting to, and working in NZ, is easy when you know how and these people are definitely in the know.

Job Boards: