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‘Sometimes rodents get into the house but only at night’ – investigating that weird Dairy Assistant wanted ad

A dark advertisement for a dairy assistant in South Canterbury promised accommodation sharing with rodents, minimum wage, and drug tests. Josh Drummond applied for the role, and investigated what the classified says about the New Zealand dairy industry today. It may not be what you’d think. 

It started, as so many things do in New Zealand, with a weird ad that someone posted on the internet.

The weird ad was a classified in the Timaru Herald that Duncan Garner snapped and put on Twitter. The text: “A position exists for a Dairy Farm Assistant, 5km east of Temuka. Minimum wage pay rate, old house accommodation, drug testing at interview. Police vetting, no pets allowed, 3 years experience. Sometimes rodents get into the house but only at night. Apply with handwritten CV.”

Twitter comments were split mostly between those who thought it was unconscionable – a stark insight into our low-wage, low-skill economy, and the conditions people will submit to in order to earn a crust – and those who thought it was a joke.

I thought it had to be a joke, so I left-handedly wrote up a CV on the back of an envelope and sent it in.

After a while, I started to wonder if this was really a joke. It didn’t quite seem right.

I went through a few options:

1. It’s a weird joke. Nothing further. Which, on reflection, seems a bit off. Who’s it funny to? What’s the point?

2. It’s a newspaper trying to create news in a jokey way, maybe making a point about the awful conditions some workers will submit to for a job. “We placed a terrible ad for a dairy worker. What happened next is jaw-dropping!”

3. It’s a real ad for actual farm assistants. Perhaps, as financial journalist Bernard Hickey suggested on Twitter, it’s being done to perversely fulfil some kind of statutory requirement.

I rang the Timaru Herald to ask about it, and they confirmed that the ad was real. I can’t have been the only one who asked, because today there was a Stuff story about it, headlined, “Job advert for South Canterbury dairy farm reveals grim details of working conditions”.

Except, according to the anonymous Temuka farmer who placed the ads, it’s not like that at all.

The staff on his farms, he told Stuff in a statement, are “like my family and they are not just numbers on a piece of paper”.

“They do a great job for my farm and I was frustrated I had to do a job application to see if anyone else was interested in the positions.”

Turns out the whole thing is related to a hot-button issue this election year: immigration.

The dairy farming Twitter personality DairyMan explained what he thinks is up in an instructive Twitter thread:

I reached out to DairyMan and a few others for a bit more information. To summarise: chances are the farmer has immigrant workers, and placing a ridiculous ad is his way of jumping through hoops to keep good employees, without having to deal with applicants responding to the job listing.

“It’s not a normal practice,” says Mark Adams, the South Canterbury provincial president for Federated Farmers, “but it’s a legitimate concern. Canterbury has some of the lowest unemployment in New Zealand, and often the people who you’re trying to fill roles on your property just aren’t up to the task. It’s frustrating when Immigration are involved and you’ve got immigrants who front up and are great to work with – and immigration says they’ve got to move on.”

Mark’s reaction to the ad, he says, was bemusement. “I’ve been trying to find out who it would be, having talked to a few dairy farmers in that neck of the woods, I don’t know. This ad would never stand up to scrutiny. But if what you’re saying is correct it does raise some really interesting issues – and if we can talk about them, it’s a good thing.”

I asked if he thought it was a case of the law being an ass. “With [rules like this, farmers will] push against the boundaries to try and make something work,” he said. “I respect that it’s there to protect locals – but these rules are often blunt instruments, and there’s no ability to show discretion.”

“When you employ foreign staff their visa is for a set period and then they have to apply for an extension,” DairyMan says. “Previously if they were in a full time, open ended contract immigration were happy (so long as salary conditions etc were being met).”

But, he adds, there’s been a rule change since – and immigrant workers “have to reapply for the position when their visa expires, which requires the employer to provide proof they’ve advertised the role (and sometimes advised WINZ of the vacancy)”.

So what about the night rodents, drug testing and minimum wage?

“There’s no way they’re employed under those conditions because a) they want to stay and b) you have to supply immigration with remuneration details. Minimum wage won’t cut it. Oh yeah, and the 3 year minimum experience is also an immigration requirement.”

So that’s it. The ad is a joke, but it’s a sad, unfunny one – being played by a farmer doesn’t want to lose his good workers.

And it might have gone unnoticed if it wasn’t for that damn meddling Duncan Garner.

The Spinoff has reached out to a number of sources from who we are awaiting comment. When these are received, we will update the story accordingly. If the farmer who placed the ad, or anyone else with relation to the story, would like to comment, please contact josh@joshuadrummond.com. 


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