AnnaEvening

What’s it like to work in a kiwi packhouse

Fun is definitely not the answer you’re looking for.

If you’ve followed my blog for a while now, you will know that I used to work in a kiwifruit orchard as an orchard worker. The downside to the job is that it is very much weather-dependent. When it rained, we’re not allowed to work because the kiwifruit disease – PSA might spread and kill the vine, which will then cause millions of losses. Because of the unstable job conditions and my need for more income, I decided to switch to working in a packhouse. Little did I know, the packhouse job was rather unstable too. If there’s no picking, then there’s no packing. What la, Anna.

Brief background

Photo courtesy of www.zespri.eu

I don’t know about you, but I definitely wasn’t aware that there are two types of kiwifruit: green kiwi and gold kiwi. All my life, I’ve only recalled buying and eating green kiwi. 

Green kiwi

From my experience of working in the packhouse, green kiwifruits are way more hairier than the gold. They’re much cheaper too. This is the variety that we grew up eating. 

Gold kiwi

On the other hand, gold kiwifruits are more expensive, with way finer hair and taste sweeter. Oh, they come in humongous size too! Most kiwifruit growers in New Zealand aim to grow gold rather than green. It’s obvious isn’t it? GOLD. Semantically speaking, gold can mean a lot of things.

The winner?

Well. After talking to so many people, including my parents, most of them preferred green kiwis. Their argument was that gold kiwis are too sweet for their liking and they don’t taste like kiwi at all. They taste more bland and are only good because they have thinner skin, are fleshier, and sweeter. We found that after eating heaps of gold kiwi in one sitting, the fruit did not taste any fragrant, but just kept getting sweeter.

 

Eastpack & Zespri

We’re working for a packhouse called Eastpack – New Zealand’s largest kiwifruit post-harvest operation. Although their headquarters is located in Te Puke, they have a branch here in Opotiki. They pack (thus they are called packhouses) kiwifruits for Zespri – the world’s largest marketer of kiwifruit. You must have seen the Zespri logo on most of the kiwifruits you can find back home. 

Photo courtesy of www.zesprikiwi.com

Getting to work

Lucky for me, the packhouse is located at a 20-minute walk away from my accommodation. On days when it was sunny, we’d walk. There were many instances when we were picked up by our kind friends, Lola and Balu while on their way there too. When Cesar – another Mexican friend of ours – joined Eastpack, he also hitched us a ride to work every morning.  

Once, it was raining in the morning and the three of us were walking to work. Two cars stopped simultaneously beside the road just to pick us up to work. We were truly blessed. Later, we were told that it was extremely easy to hitchhike in New Zealand. Though this one came to us without us sticking up our thumbs.

Types of jobs in a kiwifruit packhouse

Watch this video to get a clearer idea of the job descriptions that you are about to read below.

When we applied for the seasonal position in Eastpack, we ticked the box “packer”. But really, we’re up for everything as long as we have a job. My host suggested that we apply for box-making. Box-makers usually start before everyone else as they need to get the boxes ready. That means starting the job earlier than everyone else. By then we were already desperate as we’ve been out of work for almost 2 whole weeks. 2 whole depressing freaking weeks of earning zero income. 

However, I later learned that box-making job has been partially replaced by machineries, therefore we were stuck with packing. On my first day of work, the packing team leader came and dragged me away to the grading dept for no apparent reason, so I started my job as a grader instead of a packer. I did try packing too, but only for the first 3 days when graders were not really needed.

Navigate the tabs below to read the different descriptions for the types of jobs in the packhouse. I’ve also written down certain details about the jobs that I’ve done under Grader, Quality Control, and Packing. Yeap, I’ve done all three of them.

Photos adapted from stuff.co.nz

Photo courtesy of anorchardistquilting.blogspot.com

I would say that grading is the easiest job in the kiwifruit packhouse. Most of the grading tables were empty because the computers (spectrim) can now do the grading. However, computers can sometime mess up and reject kiwifruits that would classify as exports. Sometimes when the kiwifruits are insanely beautiful, graders would not be needed, so most of them will be sent to the packing department. 

A grader’s job isn’t that much different from our fruit thinning job in the orchard. We took off the rejects and placed them on a conveyer belt closest to us, which will then bring the rejects to class 2 table. Then at class 2, another batch of graders will then decide whether the fruits belong to class 2, or 3. They would sometimes find exports that were mistakenly sent there.

I worked as a grader for 3 or 4 days before being sent to B-belt, a huge belt where all the kiwifruits from the graders’ tables gather in one big roller table as such:

Navigate the “Quality Control” tab to read what I do.

Photo courtesy of anorchardistquilting.blogspot.com

My job at B-belt is classified as under quality control dept. Honestly? It sounds like a big shot, but really it’s just the most monotonous job in the whole packhouse. I am required to sample 50 fruits from B-belt every now and then. Basically look for rejects and note down the amount by 50, how many rejects I could find, and flip the charts to either green (good), orange (warning), or red (too much rejects). Imagine doing that for 9. Hours. Every. Single. Day

My job as a B-belt sampler is a minor branch of a major quality control dept. The QC people will take a box of kiwifruit, open up the packed boxes, (I feel sorry for the packers who worked so hard to pack them only to have QC opening them up like a kid tearing open a birthday gift wrapper) and sample 100 fruits every few minutes. They have all kinds of fancy LED lights and equipment on their tables to do their quality checking. Their results reflect deeply on the graders’ performance. 

Me? I get fancy equipment too. I get this green slate for measuring flat or squared kiwifruits. Mm, fancy.

Photo courtesy of anorchardistquilting.blogspot.com

Basically a packer packs kiwifruit into a box. Sounds easy right? It’s one hell of a job. During my 3 days working as a packer, I honestly wanted to strangle myself for signing up as a packer. Are you crazy or what?!

First of all, you need to understand that there are many lines available in the packing department. Each person will take a line and be in charged of catching the kiwifruits that will fall from the conveyer belt onto the boxes (annoyingly tucked under the conveyer belts).

Packing is a battle of time-management and working in extreme speed, mainly for people who love to move non-stop in a stressful environment. Not me.

Basically, you need to develop a rhythm or tempo in your head.

  1. Control the boxes’ belt to tuck exactly the right position under the kiwifruit conveyer belt so the kiwifruits don’t fall on the ground but into the boxes;
  2. brace for incoming kiwifruits;
  3. catch the kiwifruits;
  4. shake or arrange them nicely in the box in impractically fast speed with much cursing involved;
  5. shut the annoying and stubborn lids;
  6. stack them up 3 or 5 boxes;
  7. push them out for the labelers to label them.

Second of all, there are many kiwifruit sizes. There’s the mini sizes, small, medium, big, and jumbo. To accommodate the different sizes, the boxes had to vary. There are two types of boxes:

IT boxes:


Photo courtesy of fresh.hmart.com

 

IT boxes have fixed kiwifruit size trays in them. When the kiwis drop from the conveyer belt, we were supposed to arrange them all horizontally while battling the ever increasing speed of the conveyer belt. Packing kiwifruits is always a race with time. When the speed of the conveyer belt increases, there won’t be much time available to properly arrange the kiwifruit nicely on the trays and tuck the sheet of plastic in. It will be an OCD’s nightmare.

ML boxes:

Photo courtesy of evergreens.co.za

I love ML boxes because I don’t have to arrange the damn kiwis nicely. I just have to shake the whole box in all possible directions to get the kiwifruits to fit into the right spaces and shut the lids. Although there weren’t much cursing involved in packing ML boxes, the speed can be absurdly fast, sometimes even without breaks between boxes! Louis told me that someone once pulled the emergency stop cord and raised both middle finger high up in the air because the conveyer belt was going too crazy fast. The lady was pissed. I can’t even recall how many times I’ve sighed when working as a packer. In just one day, I’ve sighed more than I did the past 23 years of my life in total.

A packer’s job is physically demanding. I remember being sore on my right arm from all the fast-paced packing and stacking and lifting once I got home the first day. I had to keep asking Louis to massage my arms for me because it was so sore I couldn’t sleep.

Photo courtesy of anorchardistquilting.blogspot.com

A person in charged of tray prep will work closely with the packers. They need to ensure that a constant flow of boxes are supplied ceaselessly to the packers through the box conveyer belt. Tray prep team is required to place a layer of plastic in the boxes and the annoying IT trays (they call it inserts). The way the plastic is placed in the box really determines the packing speed of the packer. Some trey prep workers placed the plastic in the most hideous and terrible manner that just calls for more cursing and hollering coming from the packers on the other side.

When the kiwifruit sizes change dramatically, the line manager will announce a change of boxes, the tray prep team will need to quickly react and change the box sizes according to what was announced. They work under pressure as well, but not as stressful as the packers.    

 

Labelers produce label stickers from the label machine at the end of each packing line and label every boxes that was packed so they are trackable. They are usually ladies. Sometimes, labelers help packers who are overwhelmed by the speedy conveyer belt.

Stackers basically stack the packed boxes together in one huge block. They are usually men who are bulky and tough because it’s a physically-demanding job to do. They need to work fast and accurately.

They drive the forklift and lift blocks and blocks of kiwifruits trays stacked together like a jenga out of the packhouse into storage or for exports. They are usually skilled men who are trained for the task. They need to follow the predetermined lines on the packhouse floor so as to not hit any pedestrians walking in the packhouse while transporting the heavy blocks of kiwifruits. I noticed that they honk all the time (to warn people – incoming!) and they drive fast! 

They are also paid handsomely.

Workplace injury

Workplace injury sounds like the last thing that could happen in the packing department right? At least that was what I thought. Within 3 days, more and more blood contamination and plasters were found in packed boxes: it became a major issue in the packhouse. Packers were starting to bleed from the sharp edges of the boxes. Louis was one of them. Plasters that were given out had to be registered and numbers were written on them to track the packer in case they find anymore plasters in the packed kiwifruit boxes. Blood contamination issue was taken seriously in the packhouse.

Louis had to tuck the plastic wrappers underneath the layer of kiwifruits, and by doing that for almost 10 hours everyday, repetitively, he had a high chance of cutting himself. His hands looked like fighter hands. They were bloody, with creases and looked prematurely old. Later, my team leader asked me if he wanted to transfer to the grading dept, and I didn’t even hesitate to drag him to the grading dept with me. 

What really happens when you're doing a repetitive job?

Photo courtesy of anorchardistquilting.blogspot.com

Everyday, we tip 350-450 bins. The bin size is shown above. They’re huge and can contain hundreds of thousands of kiwifruits per bin. 

In my dept, I see so many people shut down or lose focus when working at B-belt (navigate the job description tab above to see what’s a B-belt). 

When I was working at B-belt, I started out highly motivated and stupidly energetic. I did everything enthusiastically. But when I hit the after-lunch mark, I started shutting down too. I didn’t exactly shut down, my hands were still doing what they should do, but my mind had started drifting off to many places. 

I was thinking about almost ANYTHING. If you were to look into my eyes, they’re most probably rolling along with the kiwifruits, but hollow. But once I got used to the job, I was just spacing out most of the time, but not exactly tired anymore, especially now that winter is approaching.

I’ve thought about my future, my education, a book I read the day before, a conversation I had with someone, the dinner I was going to have that night, the travel I was planning, budgeting, chocolates,… you name it, I’ve thought of it.

“I am an honours graduate with a degree, what the heck am I doing here grading kiwis?!”

The mind is a wonderful thing. I needed to entertain it because it wanted to be entertained. It is after all, an unexciting job. I came from a teaching job which required constant stimulation of the mind and was mentally challenging – this was a drastic change. 

The packhouse almost always played from the same spotify playlist. With the music and the machinery harmoniously blended together, having a conversation with my B-belt buddy, a local Māori, was taxing but hilarious. 

Even so, I chatted with my Māori buddy and picked up a few Māori vocabulary. That was a thing to arouse my idle mind. You know what they say – an idle mind is the devil’s workshop. Why not use this opportunity to learn the Māori language and I’m well on my way to becoming a polyglot! 

I used to look at the local Māoris, especially the ones who’ve worked at the same place and the same job for 6 years, and wondered how they could do this without a single complaint. I told myself that if they could do it, I could do it too. I talked to myself so much that even I wouldn’t want to believe it.

What really happens after 4 to 5 days? You get used to it. Used to boredom. Used to repetition. Right now? I’m a pro at doing a repetitive job. A really good one too.

Work Attire

Working in a packhouse means you would look HIDEOUS. Mainly for boys. Especially for boys. 

We’re expected to wear a hairnet and an apron because we’re working with food. 

But one good thing about the packhouse is that they have the decency to remove any possible mirrors in the packhouse so you would not see how ridiculous you look like wearing a “shower cap” and an apron. 

In all seriousness, the packhouse takes hygiene issues seriously. We are required to wash our hands before we go in and when we come out from the packhouse. 

I’ve always thought to myself, “If a couple fall in love with each other while working in a packhouse, that would most probably be true love.” 

Facilities and things that I like

Once in a while, the packhouse treats us lunch, like a 6-inches subway sandwich and cookies, burrito sandwich, bars of chocolates, and donuts. 

I also enjoy using the free coffee machine in the cafeteria. They have almost everything from baking oven to microwave, toaster, cooking stove, pastry warmer… you name it, they have it.

I also like it that they have a clean toilet. I am starting to understand the rationale behind why there was no bidet in any toilets in New Zealand. It keeps the toilet dry, clean, and saves troubles from cleaning up all the wet mess and muddy sole prints. 

The downside?

Boring, tedious, drilling, and taxing aside.

Working in the packhouse can be weather-dependent too. Sometimes, but not all the time. There was once when it rained 4-5 days consecutively and we were exactly 7 days out of work! Well, 6 days frankly. On the day when they do have work, and only for that day, Louis and I decided to take the day off to go fishingWe’re also working under a roster day off system whereby if we’ve worked for 13 days straight, we’re entitled to a day off, so we won’t be overworked. 

Compared to my friend whom I met on the plane, she started out in the apple harvesting season when it was full-on, so she didn’t quite have as many day-offs, which I’d prefer as we’d get to save more money for our upcoming travels. 

Towards mid-April and end of April, work did get more stable. The longest we’ve worked was a 9-day streak. That was really good money. There were also more backpackers and workers coming in end of April as the work was constant and would go on continuously. 

The good side?

Meeting people from all around the world. Nuff’ said.

There were also a lot of quizzes, competitions and random events (like gumboots competition to raise awareness for mental health) that were carried out during lunch breaks or smokos to spice things up everyday. 

I can’t believe we won the Superhero Quiz during the week The End Game was released. Although, to be honest, I did not contribute much as I was not very proficient in recognising superhero logos. My Mexican friend – Cesar contributed the most. We were four in a group, and we won $20 gift card and a bar of chocolate from Eastpack. How awesome was that!

On Lola’s birthday, we also organised a shared lunch (potluck) so we could taste different food prepared by friends of other countries and cultures. There were nice food that represented Mexico, Spain, Malaysia, New Zealand, and India!

Most importantly, this job has allowed me to learn new things about the Māori culture and people. I’ve met so many amazing leaders and workers who are cheerful and generally really kind and friendly. Of course, there are also rude and disrespectful people whom I’ve encountered along the way, but the good outweighed the bad.

For the memorable and once-in-a-lifetime experience, thank you, Eastpack.

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