by Catherine Delahunty
This weekend I attended the Te Wai Pounamu Green Women’s Hui at the Glenburn Youth Camp in the heart of new dairy country. On the way, we flew in over an altered plain with giant circles marking out the irrigation of the vast fields. Others drove and noticed massive irrigators pumping in every field despite the pouring rain. Every now and then we could see a small lonely house in the middle of the vast agribusiness.
One of the speakers at our hui was a local teacher. Her husband makes yoghurt on an organic dairy farm in the midst of the new industrial dairy land. According to the local accountant, the organic farm gets better returns from because they don’t spend a fortune on fertilisers and irrigation!
Anyway, the most fascinating part of the story was not economic returns, the price of water, or even the effects of irrigation and nitrogen and phosphorus on the land. It was the stories of migrant families from Uganda, the Philippines and India in the area on six month contracts as dairy workers.
The men work a huge day milking and women work with them and feed calves. Their young children have to take care of each other in these isolated houses with no garden fences. The farms are not safe places for them to wander between the irrigation machines and the ditches, so they’re essentially cooped up inside and left without adult supervision.
If the women are not out working they are alone in the houses; many cannot drive or speak English. They can’t walk to visit neighbours across the vast plains, so it’s incredibly socially isolating and disconnected.
The local school no longer thrives from the participation of stable families. The owners of the farmers are elsewhere and the migrant workers move constantly from contract to contract in different regions. One child at the local school had been to eight different schools by the age of nine. By the time the teachers have applied for and received ESOL resources to help these children with language issues they are gone again into the vast plain to another job for their parents (or not).
Some of the farmers pay well and some do not. For migrants, the work and the pay may well be a step up from the desperate poverty of their homelands. But we need to consider the long-term social as well as environmental effects of this transformed landscape and community.
All is not well in the new dairy corporate landscape. Only this week we heard from the CTU about a farm worker who lost his job under the 90 day Bill because he stood up for an abused migrant worker:
This is not just an issue of environmental pollution and the abuse of water, it’s an issue for families trapped in the uncertainties of the global free market in a sea of someone else’s milk.