Helping women back into work

Apr 16, 2021

By Elaine Fisher

This article was first published in the September 2020 issue of The Orchardist.

The economic impacts of Covid-19 have been disproportionately hard on
women, who account for 90% of those no longer employed, according to
Statistics New Zealand’s June quarter labour market statistics.

Employment fell 0.4% over the period, which equated to 11,000 fewer people in paid employment. Of those, 10,000 were women. With retail and hospitality industries which traditionally
employ significant numbers of women hardest hit by the downturn that’s not entirely unexpected, but one Horowhenua horticultural company has an employment plan designed to keep women in work.

Emma Clarke, sales and human resources manager and director for Woodhaven Gardens and Women in Horticulture member, says three years ago the Levin based family business set out to attract more Kiwi staff, women in particular.

“We also wanted to reduce our reliance of RSE (Recognized Seasonal Employer) scheme workers and those on working holidays. As a former solo mum myself I know how important flexibility in the workplace is for mothers, so we set about designing a plan which would suit women and give them the opportunity to come off the domestic purposes benefit and earn more.”

Together with Work and Income, Woodhaven also helped the women arrange paid childcare for holidays.

Among the first questions asked by Woodhaven when employing staff, is what their family commitments are. “If they need to be able to drop children at school and pick them up, then we find roles for them, usually in the packing shed, to give that flexibility.”

Key to the plan working is good communications between staff and employer. “We need to know each day how many staff we will have. We have a core of staff who start work at 7am and are here all day, supplemented by those who come a little later and leave earlier.”

“Around half of our 225 employees are women and because of the flexibility arrangements we probably have 20% more staff than would be needed if all were full-time.

“However, our mums are great workers and give 100% while they are here. I would rather have that commitment and speed for five hours a day than not have them here at all.

”Providing flexibility and a supportive workplace is also essential to helping women back into the workforce. “If you have been out of employment for some time, it’s not easy to go back to working five days a week. Some women have also lost confidence in themselves and that needs understanding.”

The loyalty engendered by Woodhaven’s approach to giving women new opportunities is rewarding, says Emma. “At Christmas when we are very busy, some staff have paid extra for childcare so they can work longer hours or more days. Some of the women have also gone on to become leaders and trainers in our business.

“The teenage children of several employees now work for us during school holidays, learning a good work ethic and helping their families. We have also seen strong friendships grow among our mums, providing a support network for them outside of work.”

During Covid-19 lockdown many of Woodhaven’s women employees had to stay home to care for children, but their roles were replaced by university students looking for work.

“My brother Jay Clarke saw the risks of Covid-19 coming before anyone was talking about lockdown and imported a full range of PPE (personal protective equipment) from China, so our staff had the best protective gear, which we needed because we couldn’t keep them apart.”

Woodhaven is not just a leader in equal opportunity employment. It is the 2020 Regional Supreme Winner in the Horizons Ballance Farm Environment Awards, run by the New Zealand Farm Environment Trust. Winning the award was a highlight for Emma, her father John and brother Jay. “It was a major recognition of all we are doing to reduce our environmental footprint,” says Emma, who grew up on the farm and returned full-time to Woodhaven in 1999 after completing a commerce degree at Massey University.

“I have a passion for the environmental side of our business. We were the seventh company in New Zealand to sign up to NZGAP (Good Agricultural Practice) and while it’s important for our business to be seen to do the right thing, I also think you should do it from the heart regardless, in order to leave the business in a fantastic place for the next generation.”

Woodhaven Gardens is a family business established in 1978 by Eric and John Clarke. It is unique for its size and crop diversity – 23 different vegetables, plus maize and ryegrass to improve soil health and reduce nutrient losses. Annually, they sell 27 million individual vegetable units, which is about 10% of the national supply, and contribute between $30 and 35 million to New Zealand’s GDP (gross domestic product).

Woodhaven has significantly invested in reducing its environmental impact, adopting a science-led approach that balances conservation with commercial success. The Ballance award judges said major changes to farming practices have resulted in a significantly reduced environmental footprint, with further improvements ongoing.

“Woodhaven is a leader in research for the vegetable industry – contributing time, money and land in order to measure and provide evidence. This large-scale fresh vegetable growing operation is driving change in environmental sustainability.”

Judges commended the Clarkes for shifting production areas in order to reduce nitrogen loss and minimize the impact on water quality.