Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Kiwi Experience

She works hard for the money
So hard for it honey
She work hard for the money
So you better treat her right.
~Donna Summer

Many people come to New Zealand and take part in the legendary "Kiwi Experience." It is a hop-on, hop-off bus adventure filled with twenty-something backpackers who are looking to travel and party. If I were about 10 years younger and had a little bit more money, I would probably be interested in joining them. However, I am seeing a whole different side of New Zealand and getting the REAL kiwi experience. I made the decision to come to New Zealand on a whim, so I didn't plan and save money like most people do. I knew I had to have a balance between work and play during my trip. Over the last three months I have been doing a lot of playing, so now it is time to work!

Richard (my new roommate) helped me get a job in the kiwifruit industry. I work for a company called Seeka, which is New Zealand's largest kiwifruit grower. They also operate more than 20% of the industry's total packing and coolstorage capacity. I work at the Seeka Oakside Packhouse. On my first day we were told that our packhouse would pack 4 billion boxes of fruit this season, which equates to 4,000 boxes a minute. We have 600 employees and three production lines that work around the clock. I work on Line #1 and my shift is from 8:00 a.m to 7:00 p.m., Sunday through Friday. The packhouse operates 24 hours a day, so there is also a night shift that works from 8:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. The picking & packing season will run from March to June.

Kiwifuit owe their name to a bird, native of New Zealand, named "kiwi." Although most parts of the world refer to the fruit simply as kiwi, you will be quickly corrected in New Zealand if you don't say kiwifruit. Kiwifruit plants need at least 240 frost-free days to grow. The best place for the vines to grow is in a moderately sunny place, where they can grow across a trellising system. My roommates Richard, Marcus and Jessica all work for a local grower and are in charge of picking the fruit during harvest season. Marcus describes his job in the following way, "Pick kiwis as fast as you can and be a slave." Classic! Each picker carries a bag on their chest and picks the kiwifruit from the vines above their heads. According to Marcus, they aren't referred to by their names but rather than the number on their bag. Work has been delayed this year because of the rain and also because a disease called PSA which has infected the vines. Sadly this disease (caused by pollen that they believe traveled here from Italy), may have a drastic effect on the vines and threaten the future of the fruit industry in New Zealand. If they can't control the disease and contamination, there is fear that within three years the entire kiwifruit industry in New Zealand could disappear. 

Once the fruit has been picked, they load it into giant bins and ship it to packhouses in the area. At Oakside, there are three "lines", which each have 60 plus employees working at any given time. There are several positions - quality control, sorters, box makers, packers, stackers and fork-lift drivers. After it has been loaded into the machine, they sort the fruit and then it makes its way down the conveyer belt. The machine sorts it by weight and then it is distributed to each packer based on the size. We have various box sizes, for the gold and green kiwifruit. In under 30 seconds I load 33 or so kiwifruit into a tray/box and then cover it with plastic and then close the box. If I take longer than 30 seconds, then I am screwed. It is imperative that you keep up a solid pace or the kiwifruit will begin to pile up, fall on the floor and then it becomes damaged product. 

This may be the most physically demanding job I have ever had. My back hurts and my hands are full of cuts. However as I stand there for 11 hours a day, I use this time to dream about my future. I brainstorm money-making ideas, dream about travels and think about friends and family. I also have met some amazing people at the packhouse - the type of people who will be lifetime friends. Most of the employees at the packhouse are from Malaysia, Taiwan and India. And then there is the rest of us…our little lunch crew looks like the United Nations. My new friends are Carmen (Mexico), Martijn (Holland), Kimberly (Japanese Kiwi born in America) and Kate (South America). There are a few others from Argentina, France, and Chile. I haven't confirmed it yet, but I believe I am the only American working in the packhouse. Richard, who is a supervisor at the Orchard, also said that in all the years he has been doing this he has never had an American work for him. I am not quite sure what that means. Do Americans not travel to New Zealand? If they travel here, do they choose not to work? And if they work, do they choose to get a more glamourous job? Well whatever the reason, I am slowly changing their minds that not all Americans are bad people. 

Although I am not a fan of the work and the long hours, I am grateful to have a job. I am also grateful for the people I have met through the job. If it wasn't for them, I don't think I would make it through the day. I will pack fruit until my next work opportunity comes along. Until then, I will continue to work hard for the money.


  1. Love it Amy! Although Kate is from South Africa =) I look forward to reading your other entries on our day off! xo Kim

  2. Hey I'm planning to work there too.
    How much are you paid for your hardworks?
    It seems to have they have accmodation provided, which is good :)