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How I got fired from a New Zealand vineyard

A scrawny old hippie leaped out of the 15-passenger van, his long white beard moving with the breeze.

“You must be the two Canadians!”

For four months, my friend Desirea and I had been backpacking around New Zealand, living like nomadic queens. Up until now, our most complex problem had been determining which cafe to frequent or which mountain to climb. We filled our days with touring local museums, laying on the beach for hours, hunting for waterfalls, and eating our weight in Tim Tams.

But as we faced the reality of our plummeting bank accounts, we decided it was time to actually put our working holiday visas to use.

We had made our way to the grape-growing region of New Zealand the week before, lining up jobs in the vineyards without much difficulty. It was a busy time of the season, and the contractor assured us we would be making minimum wage, which at that time was $11 per hour. We had been tempted by another job offer by a catering company, but opted for the experience of working outside instead.

Desirea and I hurled ourselves into the van, barely awake and trying to decipher the words behind the old hippie’s Kiwi accent. Dave was the site manager, he informed us. He had been working on the vineyards for about 20 years. He loved his job, and we would too once we got the hang of it.

This is how the vineyard wage system works (at least this is how it worked in New Zealand about two and a half years ago). You got paid by the vine. Each vine, depending on the job, is given an amount, say 20 cents per vine. The more difficult the job, the more each vine is worth. So, the more vines you process, the more money you make.

About 45 minutes after we were picked up, the van filled up with seasoned regulars. One man’s dreadlocks hung all the way down his back, a tear tattooed in the corner of his eye. Another guy, as soon as he sat down, fell immediately asleep onto the person next to him. A woman’s bleach blond hair stuck out the back of her hat, her tiny frame braced for attack.

Oh God, what am I even doing here?

Once we got to the vineyard, Dave gave Desirea and I a little pep talk. I looked around, seeing nothing but vines in all directions. It was suffocatingly beautiful.

The default vine work position was painful
The default vine work position was painful

We were put on “thinning,” which meant flicking off any extra shoots on the vines. My head was constantly downturned as I stooped over the vine, my hands feeling for “doubles,” my feet shuffling as I worked my way down the row. The sulphur-based pesticide stained everything fluorescent yellow, and I constantly had to stop myself from scratching my burning eyes out.

But thinning didn’t compare to “bud rubbing,” which really was as bad as it sounds. Wearing thick industrial gloves, we had to hunch over and rub the base of the vine, clearing it from any new buds that may have started to form. Standing up fully was a luxury awarded only after a section was finished. (I don’t think my hamstrings have ever fully recovered.)

So this was life for the next three weeks. We would meet Dave at the gas station at around 5:30 a.m., and get home at around 5:30 p.m. It was like the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day: every day was exactly like the one before, and it never got better.

We never got better, either.

Even though we were constantly commended by the quality of the work that we did, we just did not get fast enough to actually make minimum wage.

Oh God, what am I even doing here?

Various members of the crew would often ask how we were doing, and sometimes they’d offer us each a granola bar. And often some would even help us complete our row of vines at the end of the day.

And every week, after receiving our paycheques, we were incensed that we only managed to make about $200, especially after we were promised about double that amount.

Being someone who advocates for justice and equality at home, I thought it was only natural that once we blew the whistle, once we asked why weren’t receiving minimum wage as promised, things would be made right. So I called the owner of the company, just to ask him about it.

And then we got fired.

The owner said there were a lot of other people who would love to have our jobs, and then he told us not to come in the next day.

We quickly got in with another vineyard. The same thing happened. This time, we knew better than to question the system. Some money is better than no money, right?

So why did God bring me there? Maybe it’s because I needed to experience injustice firsthand. Or I needed to be taught humility. Or that the grace of Jesus can be demonstrated in the most unlikely of people. Or maybe it’s because I needed to realize this is how the majority of the world experiences work, and I am incredibly privileged never to have encountered it before.

It’s probably all of that, and then some.